Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Baedekers as Casualty: Great War Nationalism and the Fate of Travel Writing

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Baedekers as Casualty: Great War Nationalism and the Fate of Travel Writing

Article excerpt

Three weeks into the First World War, a list of German casualties in the London Times included this improbable notice: "It is reported that Herr Karl Baedeker, the publisher of the famous guide-books, has been killed in action."1 The most famous Karl Baedeker (1801-59) had started publishing in Coblenz in 1827. By 1914, the family business had passed to his youngest son, Friedrich (Fritz). The man killed in 1914 was Fritz's son, also named Karl, while the guidebooks still appeared under their founder's name.2 Evidently the Times had confused one Karl with another. Yet this report, however erroneous with regard to the youngest Baedeker, metonymically foretold a more widespread trauma - for the books themselves would become war casualties. In January 1916, Findlay Muirhead (co-editor of Baedeker's English-language volumes with his brother James F. Muirhead) announced a new series of guidebooks to replace the German ones, "which, after the war," it was supposed, were "not likely to be popular in the countries of the Allies."3 Indeed, by 1918 Baedekers drew denunciation in Britain and America for having been instrumental to the German war effort.

The relation between nationalism and the trajectory of the Baedekers' popularity outside Germany has yet to receive sustained attention (notwithstanding the considerable scholarship already carried out on these guidebooks). In light of this relation, I will articulate the foremost reasons for the precipitous decline of the Baedeker empire in the early twentieth century. Critics have partially addressed the first of these reasons: that conditions on the Western Front undermined foundational concepts of landscape description, thereby (I would add) implicating Baedekers as a representational method that had come to be seen as limited and inaccurate. Other scholars have focused on how the guidebooks emblematized a lost pre-war style of international journey within a contested cultural field of travel narratives. However, evidence in neglected archival and fictional sources qualifies our understanding of changes to travel style and the relation between those changes and the use of Baedekers. In what follows, I revisit and reconcile these assessments by linking them to a still more pressing, unexamined consideration: namely, that the events of 1914-18 also recast the Baedekers' mediation of international access as a form of nationalist expansionism, and hence a suspect project.

Much of the Baedeker story has become familiar thanks to the seminal work of Paul Fussell, continuing through that of James Buzard, Edward Mendelson, and Rudy Koshar, among others. As they have observed, Baedekers were in their heyday before the war, providing highly popular guidance during an age of burgeoning travel. According to Mendelson, Karl Baedeker had seen how guidebooks of the early 1800s typically offered either simple lists of tourist destinations without any context, or overly elaborate discussions of what to see and how to feel when seeing it. "Karl Baedeker chose a middle way," Mendelson explains; "he gave his readers precisely the information they needed to find their way cheaply and conveniently, and precisely the information they needed in order to appreciate what they saw. He trusted them to provide their aesthetic and emotional responses for themselves."4 Furthermore, Baedekers stood in for human guides, giving a wealth of details on transportation and money matters. For example, the 1913 edition of Northern Germany begins with twenty-seven pages on languages; currency; passports and customs; railways; motoring and cycling; sample itineraries; hotels; mail, telegraph, and telephone services; and a nineteen-page essay on North German architecture and painting from Romanesque to rococo.5

Baedekers owed their phenomenal popularity, however, to more than the scope of their information. Early evaluations attributed their success to an empirically based, objective narrative framework. Karl Baedeker personally verified the accuracy of his books, researching the first volumes himself. …

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