Climate changes, society too : 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 is happiness. Always been. And still is. The beach, that is a place of unquestioned being.

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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. The first thing that comes to my mind is sunsets, nowhere are they as captivating as here. I think of innocent children’s games, but also of the dubiousness of the upstart society and the long unprocessed 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. Sea levels 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 roof houses, "I want to go back to Westerland", Gosch.

Think yourself into it, describe what it means, a farewell to such a charged place. And one more thing: You can say I if you like. Write a first person 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.

The fact that Sylt is 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 melting. The storm tides are increasing. There are interactive maps on the Internet that show how far Sylt will have disappeared at which water level, at one meter higher sea level, at two meters, at five meters.

Yes, yes, that is connected with feelings. It will be a long goodbye for me.

Now, this winter, I am standing in Westerland on top of the dune at the Kapt’n-Christiansen-Strabe beach crossing next to the little house where you have to show your spa card during the season, and I am looking down on my childhood paradise that lies below me.

How the grains of sand in my hair feel from all the somersaulting on the beach. Crabs scurrying to the side. Shells in many colors and shapes. The washed up seal, which, perishing, cried out miserably. Waves. The trembling in the whole body, if one was again too long in the water. And the sand in all its states. The muddy sand when you dig close to the water. The sand when it’s all light and flying, dried up by the sun. And the sand after a downpour, when you can carefully pick up small caking slabs in your hand.

Earliest memories, reproduced again and again by memory, long since feeling like a familiar stack of fading Polaroids.

Otto comes to mind, the beach chair attendant. I don’t know much about him. Only 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 did not immediately shoo us away like many other adults at that time. He may have seemed like a pirate captain, and a bit like Pippi Longstocking’s father.

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, opened and closed them. And when we came to the beach once in the morning, we found everyone overturned. Lay helpless on their bellies like beached porpoises.

Great childlike excitement! With the seriousness of elementary school students, we set about putting up the beach chairs again. But Otto got angry when we proudly presented him 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 this work again.

Shortly after, the vacation was over.

But I also immediately remember how I stood up here on the beach crossing three and a half years ago, in the summer of 2018, and was suddenly so incredibly angry at Sylt, so struck to the core, as you can only be when something is really identitary important to you. I thought that I would have to say goodbye to this island and my childhood memories of it for good that day. 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 very own waves. Storm on Sylt in 1990 Photo: Winter/Timeline/SZ Photo

I had turned the same age in 2018 to the day my father died, 54 years, 8 months and 25 days. And I had gone to Sylt alone for a week for this occasion. I had imagined that to be beautiful, emotional and comforting. I wanted to walk a lot on the beach and reflect on my difficult relationship with my father, who had still participated in World War II and never adequately dealt with the German defeat. But my ride turned into a disaster.

The people of Sylt looked the other way

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

In addition, I discovered the book "Der Fall Reinefarth" (The Reinefarth Case) by the Swiss historian Philipp Marti in a back corner of Westerland’s clearly arranged public library and – since I couldn’t go for a walk on the beach – devoured it on the spot.

Heinz Reinefarth has been a high SS leader and a bad war criminal. He was in charge of the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, a merciless slaughter by 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 – North Germany had not yet been occupied at the end of the war – mayor in Westerland and remain so until 1963. Reine-farth 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 by the people of Sylt are one thing. The other thing 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 self-understanding.

The "Nordic people" were for the Nazis the model Aryans, and the North Frisians were among them. To the fight against the North Sea, the reclamation of land, the creation of living space, they were able to gain some heroism. 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 for a long time, but I had not brought it together with my childhood paradise. Now I did it.

What calmed me down again was the sea. Carefully I rode my bike – it was better than walking – on the former line 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 had an ice cream, it can get really wild and lonely there. Because of the current you can not swim. One encounters only 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 a shawl in the loneliness of Sylt, 1982 Photo: serienlicht/imago

I still grew up with pictures of heavy sea. Frisian genre scenes with people fighting the wind. Emil Nolde’s wild oil paintings of the sea with the heroic breakers. The lonely man, at the mercy of the storms. It took this crisis of my attachment to Sylt to realize that this combative relationship to the sea was not right for me at all. I never experienced the sea as an opponent and enemy. I owe it 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 spot recurring patterns of life. This is obviously such a pattern with me: the sea is good.

Later I have often been in autumn and winter on Sylt and have also seen many storms. I have felt coldness that penetrated to the bone. I have seen North Sea waves that swept 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. The island has long since been recoded from the heroic-military to the hedonistic-touristic. I at least can be thankful for that too.

Sylt was the meeting place of the rich, the powerful and the beautiful?

When it doesn’t get right into the cliches – chic, Sansibar, sunsets, beach oats – two very different stories like to be 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 those people who met for the weekend in Kampen and along the mudflats also controlling the media scene, which at the time was still centrally located in Hamburg. That secured this history then also immediately a surface-spreading spreading.

A gold-plated chopper, a Mercedes convertible and a Porsche are parked in front of the Gogartchen restaurant on the island of 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, and in Kampen they got together again. And both together probably strengthened their world importance. In other sectors, among Hanseatic private bankers, for example, or among the so-called captains of industry from the Ruhr area, it must 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 were not particularly interested in the upper class got a lot of details via the media. For example, I know that the big Friday editorial conference of the weekly newspaper The time was brought forward by one hour, so that the bosses could still drive on Friday evening over the freeway to Niebull and catch there the last car train to Sylt.

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-roof 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 head of the feuilleton of Time, Fritz J. Raddatz, who recounts this scene in his book "Mein Sylt," said that the heir looked like a character in a Fellini film.

As a retreat for the elite and at the same time as a haven of decadence, that’s how the public imagined Kampen back then. This was as much a part of the intellectual 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 – newly decorated every summer with fish and ship mosaics made of shells – was for a time almost 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 at 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 around; in any case, her name was also mentioned in the beach chair with us.

Even Christian Kracht’s debut novel "Faserland" lives on this background of high society and mores in 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, he describes the tourist mass processing with scampi and fish rolls at Gosch at 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 first-person narrator should have just left his so-called friends behind and gone down to the beach. That would have given him other ideas (but then Christian Kracht would not have been able to write this novel).

Those who work on Sylt often can’t afford to live here anymore. For born Sylt residents this is also a humiliation

The second Sylt story tells about the fact that the island has long since ceased to be what it once was. I have now read or heard this story in many variations. Neighbors in the suburb, in which I grew up, told them. Sylt had become too crowded for them, and they preferred to go to Amrum or Denmark, if not to the Maldives anyway. Or, always very popular, disappointed ex-Sylt drivers write the story as a glossy reportage 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 basic self-deception of many social climbers to think that the moment they themselves have reached the top, they can simply turn off the social processes that brought them to the top again. But that’s not how it works, especially not on Sylt.

In our society, many people may be socially disconnected on the one hand, but on the other, the wealthy are becoming wealthier and wealthier, so that 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 punch line for the native Sylt residents. With housing becoming more expensive, many of them have long since had to move off the island and find a home on the mainland. How partly strange the conditions are in the meantime, one can experience daily, if one places oneself once early at the station of Westerland. The first trains of the day are often full. 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 town running.

Those who work on Sylt often can no longer afford to live here, and have to commute from the mainland. That is troublesome. For born Sylt residents it is also a humiliation. You could certainly tell a lot about the shocks to one’s self-image when, on the one hand, because of people who can easily afford 20.000 euros per square meter, has to move away from his home, and on the other hand also lives exactly from 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 storm surges to do that, time, sand flushing and the building boom were enough.

In fact, in the half century that I have known Sylt, much has changed, most of it, in fact. The tetrapods, mighty four-footed blocks of concrete in whose cavities we used to play hide-and-seek: long since buried by the sand washed up annually for coastal protection. The Kurlichtspiele, the so great cinema in the fifties style, on whose small stage in front of the screen I once saw the real Pippi Longstocking, the actress Inger Nilsson, who toured the vacation baths in a red wig: torn down and replaced by an apartment building.

The concrete belt of tetrapods, which was intended to reduce the undercutting of the land masses during high tides 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 seal pool, 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 Westerlander Sudwaldchen, from which the larks rose and jubilantly chirped their songs (I still have them in my ear): also long since built on.

Now they heave to the promenade of Westerland also still this ugly protection wall against the storm tides and accept that the precious view of the sea is blocked by concrete. At the latest this measure has really something desperate.

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 this way from there to the beach, which I often used to walk barefoot and in swimming trunks, seemed to me! And how short it seems to me now.

With my family background I cannot contribute to the history of the rich, the powerful and the beautiful, nor to the history of the native Sylt population, but I can contribute to a possible third history, which is not told so often, although it was and still is the most powerful history: the history of the appropriation of the island by social climbers, like my parents were.

This history 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 to the "people bath", to inexpensive offers for the width of the population thus, for which among other things the SPD parliamentary group of 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 was able to tie in with seaside resort traditions that went back to the German Empire.

taz at the weekend

This text comes from the taz am wochenende. Always from Saturday on at the kiosk, in the eKiosk or immediately in the practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.

Had not Kaiser Wilhelm II. once stayed at the Hotel Miramar directly by the sea. The writer Thomas Mann spent three summers on Sylt in the mid-1920s, left a famous dedication at his guesthouse Haus Kliffende in Kampen ("I have lived deeply by this shattering sea") and was inspired to write magnificent descriptions of the waves off Sylt, which he ultimately incorporated into the legendary snow chapter of his novel "The Magic Mountain". Mann writes there of "refreshing melancholy" and of the "predatory nature of the waves".

No one less than the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, in one of these summers, at that time still as an adolescent son of a Frankfurt citizen, secretly followed his idol Thomas Mann on the beach, which he confessed to him only in exile in California, when it came to a collaboration in the context of the "Doktor Faustus" novel. So before the Nazis turned Sylt into a fortress, it had already been a bourgeois spa.

The decision for the upscale led to the opening of the Sylt casino in 1949, which had to cease operations at the end of 2021, and to noble 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, nuclear family, forty-hour week, and all that. Among the communities of Sylt, there was a division of labor, with its subtle differences and tangible class barriers. Kampen with its thatched houses and some areas of the mudflats with their Frisian estates kept the reputation of exclusivity. In Wenningstedt and Westerland and from there on southwards 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 Sylt residents today, the exclusivity was gone at the end of the sixties.

My mother has told me time and again how she came to buy our apartment; it must have been one of the defining moments of her life. I myself also played a role, as a four-year-old who had it with the bronchial tubes. 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 our 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 this moment of my parents in my mind’s eye. Both survivors. My father, also a perpetrator, in his late forties, a working-class child, a participant in the war, also a war invalid – he lost his left forearm in the Polish campaign, the rest of his arm in the final battle near Dresden – who neither could nor wanted to leave behind his nationalistic imprints. He already had three marriages behind him, had worked his way up to a well-paid lawyer and notary, and now once again the wind of a new beginning under his wings (the leukemia diagnosis came shortly after).

My mother, 21 years younger, refugee child from Kolberg, father unknown, mother’s nerves shattered since the flight, now herself a housewife and mother, 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 inconvenient. The detached house in the suburbs of Kiel had just been bought and remodeled according to our own wishes, there were liabilities. But the mixture of "doing something for the children" and increasing one’s own social prestige by having an address on Sylt was too tempting. 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 registration address there. This pride they gave me.

Our apartment had barely fifty square meters. living room with kitchenette and balcony – a balcony is important on Sylt. Bathroom. Two small bedrooms. In one of them we children stayed overnight, sometimes six of us, together with cousins and the daughter of our housekeeper. We slept in the ten-square-meter room in three bunk beds, which were placed across the corner in such a way that one could jump from bed to bed and play pirate ship. Our vacations on the island of Sylt were like private children’s camps. And our parents were often not there, they stayed in Kiel, working. 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.

At that time one built still beach castles. The entire beach before Westerland was parceled out into small principalities surrounded by piled up sand walls, in whose center in each case a Strandkorb enthroned. The adults sat in these beach chairs and wanted to have their peace and quiet. We children romped through the narrow passages between the sand castles down to the water, that was our adventure playground.

The scene on the beach of Westerland shows colorful beach chairs and tanned people at summer vacation time. The sky is blue, the sea too

Then it became a kind of public bath after all: Westerland on Sylt, in the summer of 1982 Photo: SMID/imago

The leisure behavior was still quite different from today. The fun-fitness mix of yoga on the beach, Aperol sundowners with a view of the sea and windsurfing lessons did not yet exist. And the free WLAN on the beach, which nowadays would also allow a home office in a beach chair, of course not at all. At that time, people brought their own sandwiches and rice pudding to the beach. Today you snack in between -Crepes with feta cheese, arugula and honey mustard. Back then, no one would have thought of jogging along the promenade. Today, functional clothing dominates even in the 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 watch today, with which self-evidentness the vacationers spoil their crab rolls with cocktail sauce (really a mystery to me) and sip their cocktails with straw in warm summer nights, you don’t have the impression anymore that habitus questions play a role in the leisure behavior.

It is the sea that makes Sylt

Old times. Our apartment in Kapt’n-Christiansen-Strabe has long since been sold, and since then I have lived in many different accommodations on Sylt, sometimes with the family for two or three weeks in the summer, sometimes for a few days to catch my breath alone. Once we were invited to one of those reconstructed Frisian farmhouses, for which – I checked on Immoscout – you would have to pay tens of millions in the meantime; something like that really impresses you.

With a little luck, and if you’re 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’s quite 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 transition and hesitate. The winter sun fights its way through the drifting clouds. Seagulls hang as if on threads in the sky. The storm tides will come, but the island still exists. What do I 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 might as well walk along the Rantum basin, where you can see 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 store of the fish store Bluhm in Neue Strabe behind the aquariums, where the lobsters with tied claws are still waiting for customers.

I leave all that and go down to the sea. In the end, it is the sea that makes Sylt special. If you get very close, right up to the area where the waves run out on the beach, you are completely surrounded by its sounds. To the banging, sucking and roaring of the waves. The bursting of the 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 sense of how each story about Sylt overlaps other stories, just as the waves sometimes overlap each other.

For me, the often not very high, but powerful waves off Sylt have always remained the benchmark, the primal meter with which I compared all other waves in the world. The waves of the Baltic Sea: somehow not yet fully grown. The breakers on the Atlantic coast: rather sporting interesting. The waves of the Pacific: too big and wide, slipped in scale. The gentle ups and downs of the Andaman Sea: not bad either, meditative in a different way.

Did I write above that the sea never changes? That is not true. The sea is always changing. It’s a different sea every day. And it is 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 not be there anymore without Sylt.

If you let this thought really get to you, it is hardly bearable.

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