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Visiting the City Hall, Aachen, Germany: Focal Point of Symbolism Far Beyond Municipal Affairs

Updated on December 31, 2017
Flag of Germany
Flag of Germany | Source
Aachen's City Hall
Aachen's City Hall | Source
Sir Winston Churchill at the Aachen City Hall, 1956
Sir Winston Churchill at the Aachen City Hall, 1956 | Source
Map location of Aachen in Germany
Map location of Aachen in Germany | Source

Municipal dealings, with mysticism added

In recent decades, the backdrop of the City Hall (Rathaus) at Aachen, in the German State of Nordrhein-Westfalen, has been familiar in relation to publicity surrounding the award of the Charlemagne Prize. This award has been made to many prominent individuals deemed to have contributed significantly to what is held to be European unity; some of these individuals, such as Sir Winston Churchill (who received the prize in 1956), have been well known in the English-speaking world, while others are less well known (again, at least in the English-speaking world), such as Jean-Claude Juncker (1). Some North American and British people might ask the practical question, What is the Prize for? Some Continental Europeans would probably respond something along the lines of it all being about European symbolism.

Indeed, symbolism, even within a strictly German institutional context, is a leitmotif which may be said to inhere in the role of the Mayor of Aachen, with his or her magnificent City Hall.

Even when one thinks of the individuals who have occupied the formal post of Mayor of Aachen, some of the more famous people among them are actually those who have held the post for the shortest time, as it happens.

For example, Franz Oppenhoff was Mayor of Aachen for a short period from October 1944 until March 1945. He died assassinated by the SS, on the instructions of Heinrich Himmler . While little of mid-20th century Germany's governance could be said to be normal or routine, yet Mayor Oppenhoff's appointment was not via a 'normal', internal, German administrative procedure, but rather by installation on the part of the occupying American military authorities.

The fact that Mayor Oppenhoff was assassinated thus gave early, post-World War Two, non-fascist administrators a martyr figure. Mayor Oppenhoff is chiefly not remembered today for his achievements in office — indeed, in the short time he was Mayor, his American military patrons seemed rather unimpressed with even the limited performance that they might have wished for under the trying circumstances of the closing months of World War Two. But, rather, the fact that he was Mayor at all, and then was assassinated at the hand of proponents of a dying and discredited cause, again emphasizes the symbolic value which this ostensibly municipal post can command.

Wherein lies its symbolism? To answer this question would involve recalling Aachen's past status as an imperial city.

Which brings us back to the figure, whose statue stands in front of Aachen's City Hall: Charlemagne.

(Who died in the year 814... .)

The City Hall is a splendid building, anyway. Built upon the foundations of Charlemagne's palace, the 14th century building was damaged by fire in the 17th century, and rebuilt in Baroque style. Further rebuilding took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1915 German Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to install copies of the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire in Aachen's City Hall, and these may be inspected there still today.


(1) Mr. Juncker has been Prime Minister of Luxembourg since 1995. It would be fair to say that Sir Winston Churchill was far more well known in English-speaking countries than Mr. Juncker. Part of the significance of Sir Winston Churchill's award of the prize was arguably that he made a speech — to a American audience — in which he referred to a future 'United States of Europe'; from a Continental European perspective, this can be perceived as some kind of aspiration to preparing an insular United Kingdom to lose its worldwide and Atlanticist vocation at the expense of a psychological locus centring on Continental Europe. (Whether this reflected British and North American realities is another question.) Mr. Juncker is doubtless a worthy recipient of the Prize, but the brutal fact is that many British and North American people, if they are even aware that Mr. Juncker is Luxembourg's Prime Minister, or even that he has received the Charlemagne Prize at Aachen, would likely respond in relation to the Prize, 'In practical terms, so, what?' Continental Europeans would then respond by starting to talk about European symbolism, and so forth. Such is the stuff of sometimes differing mentalities. President Bill Clinton, however, another Prize recipient, has certainly put the award on the map, so to speak, for many North Americans.

Also worth seeing

In Aachen itself, the ancient Cathedral (Dom) also has strong associations with Charlemagne. The Carolus Thermen are thermal baths, also named for Charlemagne, the existence of which would qualify the City of Aachen to call itself 'Bad Aachen' ... but, then, it would not come first in lists of cities, so the municipality has declined to call itself thus.

Vaals , The Netherlands (distance: 4.8 kilometres) is a busy border town to which the neighbouring Vaalserquartier seemingly functions as a suburb as much as it does to Aachen. The tall church spire of St Pauluskerk is a local landmark. At the Vaalserberg, the borders of three countries: Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium meet.

Holset , The Netherlands (distance: 8 km) has an old stone church, the site of which is reputed to have early Christian associations from about the year 360.

Eupen , Belgium (distance: 22 kilometres) is the capital of Belgium's German-speaking Ostkantone. It has several historic buildings, including spired churches.


How to get there: Lufthansa flies from New York Newark to Duesseldorf, where car rental is available. The German railroad company DB links Duesseldorf (distance: 93 kilometres) to Aachen. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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