A couple days into our Germany trip, we headed out of Munich and up into the mountains. We spent a day in the impossibly beautiful town of Berchtesgaden. Berchtesgaden is a perfect alpine town, surprisingly calm and nestled in between high mountains shrouded in mist. The legend says that the angels charged with distributing wonders the world over received the command to hurry up. Rushing forward, they dumped all the wonders in Berchtesgaden before continuing on to the rest of the world.
And when you are in this place, you feel that, the excess of beauty all around you.
One of the top things I had wanted to visit in Berchetsgaden was the crystal clear waters of the Königssee. We took a boat across the waters — startlingly emerald even though it was a foggy day where we couldn’t even see the top halves of the mountains around us. Halfway across the lake, the captain stopped the boat and took out a trumpet. He played a beautiful song across the water, pausing after each line as the music echoed seven times around us. By the end of the song, so many lines were echoing together and it was so beautiful, that I cried. On the other side of the lake, we docked on the shores of St Bartholomä. We walked around the tiny chapel, soaked in the stillness of the empty meadows, and settled into a cheery inn for cake and hot chocolate. It was the perfect incarnation of Gemütlichkeit– that blend of coziness and well-being that lacks an English equivalent.
But I am not the only one to find Berchtesgaden alluring. As I shared in an Instagram post of this beautiful place, it was also where Hitler chose to build his personal retreat, perched high above the valley. It is a place so beautiful that it is hard to imagine that it was at the heart of some of the greatest evil, the greatest ugliness that the world has ever known. But it was. And when you are in this place, you feel that, a history of darkness looming over you.
Throughout my time in Europe, I started working way through some of the theoretical texts that I will use in my dissertation. In one of them, George Steiner talks about the truth that the Holocaust forces us to face, the truth that beauty, the humanities, good books and lovely ideas, did not stave off evil. It is naive to thing that those who surround themselves with beauty are incapable of darkness, and Steiner painfully illustrates that. History illustrates that. Berctesgaden illustrates that. Sometimes beauty and darkness dwell closer together than we like to think.
Dostoyevsky famously wrote that “Beauty will save the world,” and I desperately want to believe him, because it is a deeply nice thing to believe. But it didn’t. It won’t. Standing atop the misty mountains in Berchtesgaden, I was reminded of that. Truth will, Christ will, and sometimes it seems far from beautiful in the moment. But truth always leads to something far more beautiful than anything we could imagine.
I’m not sorry that we visited Berchtesgaden, that we toured Dachau, that we had somber sights and thoughts mixed in with the fun and beauty of our trip. The memory of darkness is important, because it helps you prevent it from coming back, strengthens you against it. Standing on the shores of the Köningssee, I kept on thinking that the blend of beauty and darkness in this place is a reminder of what we all experience every day. All of humanity, all of creation, all of this world, is fallen. But all of creation, every last site where something awful happened, will experience redemption someday. Maybe the beauty we see now, however mixed with darkness it is, is just a little foretaste of that.