How Döblin worked his sources


What can a 17th century parish register tell us about Döblin’s merging of history and imagination in Wallenstein?


Immediately following the victory feast that so memorably opens the novel Wallenstein, the emperor Ferdinand embarks on a pilgrimage to the little church at Hoheneich, on the border with Bohemia. The miracle that once occurred there is recounted in a single paragraph (Book 1 Chapter 2, page 7):

In Hoheneich stood a little low church; between two pillars let into the wall was an entrance with an oaken door split down the middle and held together with iron brackets, faded and inconspicuous. Once an insolent local nobleman had barricaded this ancient church door as a procession made its way up from Schrems; he hid in a thicket with his cronies to enjoy the spectacle. Choirboys swung censers, monstrances clanked, the banner-bearer at the head laid the silk cloth on the step: the door burst asunder, the children sang on! The shocked nobleman tried to stand up in the thicket of broom, the eyes of the other two were filled with tears of remorse. They pushed through the greenery, left their weapons in the grass, slouched slowly towards the procession until stones were thrown to keep them at a distance. The nobleman ran alongside, uttered a cry, but to his horror what came from his throat was a horrible barking. When he turned to his friends, he saw two strong bulldogs; he himself had a wagging tail, was a lean brown fierce dog slobbering down its chest. The three dogs were later killed and buried beneath a nearby gallows.

The German Wikipedia page for “Hoheneich” provides a fuller account: an entry in the parish history from 1658; seeürdigkeiten :

The church with its wooden statue of the crowned Mother of God, the Child on her left arm, enjoyed not merely the reverence of its own parishioners, but numerous visits by worshippers from nearby places. There occurred many notable and wonderful cases of prayers answered. The fame of these spread very quickly, leading to a stream of visitors from far and wide, even from Bohemia. The stronger the belief, the more the wonders and answered prayers. Especially many visitors came on the feast day of the church’s patron: the Birth of the Blessed Virgin (8 September). Yet Protestantism made even Hoheneich its own, and pilgrims became fewer and fewer. God was displeased.

And so, in said church 37 years ago, i.e. the year 1621, God delivered clear proof on the feast of the Birth of Mary. On the said day people from Bohemia… came in great numbers on a pilgrimage, and since the preacher, the Protestant pastor Timotheus Weber and his assistants considered it burdensome to keep opening and shutting the church doors, they petitioned the gracious squire Ernst von Kollonitsch, patron of said place, to lift this burden from them and restore their tranquillity. Said gentleman deigned to accept their petition, and consulted them on the manner of its implementation. The preacher replied: Let the doors be firmly bolted, locked and walled up from the inside, and egress provided by means of ladders through a window. So it will happen that when they (the pilgrims) find themselves thus hindered – we shall lurk behind bushes and observe them – and use force against the doors, they shall be liable to punishment by the gracious squire, or at least, finding themselves locked out, shall have their hopes dashed. As they leave we shall mock them soundly and hiss, so that henceforth they shall not return to cause us more trouble.

When they had completed the work, they withdrew behind the bushes by St Anne’s chapel nearby the church, keeping a close watch and eagerly awaiting the outcome. After they had lain hidden for some time, see, there came parishioners from Naglitz, a village in Bohemia, in procession singing pious hymns and heading for the church as usual. When they came to the barricaded doors, unaware of the whole proceeding they continued through the opened doors without opposition, delay or hindrance, as the lurkers observed from their place of concealment. Shocked by this sight and amazed by this fresh miracle, the gracious squire mounted his horse and declared to the preacher: “This is a miracle, Herr Timotheus!” He replied: “Your grace should not be astonished by this miracle; even the Devil can work miracles.” But Kollonitsch noticed that he, just like Saul struck by lightning, had been blinded by this event, and remained blind and shortly thereafter made his way to Vienna to seek his Ananias. There he engaged vigorously with learned men to find out what he should do. Some two weeks later he returned to Kirchberg and after a sojourn of some days set off once more – apparently back to Vienna.

But in fact he went to see the venerable abbot (at that time Seifried) of the monastery of Zwettl, in order to enter into the Catholic faith under his exact and thorough guidance. After three weeks in this undertaking, he returned, having first made several sacraments of penance and gained strength from a holy Eucharist, to his home and his servants and publicly acknowledged his error.

This story, which said gracious squire, later Freiherr von Kollonitsch, told to almost every confidant, renders credible the cause of his conversion. Not to mention Christoph Nöltl, at that time manager of this estate and Johann Kleibeisen, the huntsman, who were present at this event and several others since deceased. (Annals of Zwettl). After 1623 von Kollonitsch dismissed the preacher. He himself delivered a speech at Kirchberg to his tenants, which was so affecting that most of them also converted.

The source provides a clear motive for barring the church door: the Protestant pastor is fed up with the stream of Catholic pilgrims. His stated excuse – they cause him extra work – is no doubt underpinned by sectarian dislike.

The outcome – the conversion of the squire and many of his tenants back to Catholicism – fits the tale squarely in the “religious wars” framing of the period’s history.

Döblin’s novel constantly undermines that religious framing, by exposing how professed piety sugar-coats blatant motives of avarice and power. Yet with this incident he completely omits the Catholic/Protestant angle in favour of another version (from what source?) with a magical/diabolical denouement.

Recall that the description of the victory feast that opens the novel has already included a magical/diabolical scene: the fantastic vision of the defeated Bohemian dead descending like a zombie apocalypse from the ceiling and wall-hangings of the banqueting hall – only to quick-cut the focus once more to the chomping dignitaries and their waffles.

The dog-gallows tale, slipped into a more or less straightforward narrative of an imperial picnic (leaving aside here the intriguing undercurrents in the conversation of his entourage), likewise serves to prime the reader to sinister, magical, pre-rational mysteries that, as the narrative proceeds, break insistently through the everyday surface of life and human actions.