Wiblingen Monastery Library and Bleg: Joseph Nickel

A few years ago I bicycled around the Allgäu, a succulent part of Germany on the border between its two large and influential southern states, Baden Württemburg and Bavaria. Gentle hills, meter-wide brooks, and frothy South German baroque churches.

I happened to ride by Wiblingen, which hosts a Benedictine monastery church with a library that looks like this:

Wiblingen Monastery Library

The camera was a Canon Powershot G11, nothing special. The photographer in me regrets the overexposed bits, but overall, it's an eye-feast, and the monastery itself works the magic. Most of what looks like solid marble is actually plaster that resounds when you tap it.

The bleg is this: I paid a couple of euros to visit the museum here, which was detailed — maps of the monastery's shifting domains, dioramas of the practical winemaking and woodworking and property management of the industrious ora et labora Benedictines, and maps illustrating the fascinating legal history of the local Benedictines: when they were granted their first clerical fiefs, which pieces of land they lost during the War of the Moravian Pretender in 1715, what percentage of their land they rented to tenant farmers, etc.

All relentlessly informative and dull, even for a lawyer. But then one of the pull-out wooden information tablets (the curator had gotten pretty frisky) spoke of The Benedictine Monks receiving the Blutrecht (literally blood-right) from the local prince in the early 1700s. This meant they had the power to enact their own criminal code and inflict corporal penalties. The abbey had become a large local landowner, and the local prince was tired of policing it, so he transferred that authority to the monks themselves. They enacted a crude criminal code, punishing unrepentant blasphemers by death.

Here, the (likely tendentious and unreliable) monastery records describe an interesting case. A local man named Joseph Nickel came to monks' attention. He'd studied in Paris and then returned to Wiblingen to spread his free-thinking views and eke out a living as a highway robber. He even robbed a monk. He was punished a few times. Then one evening he was overheard in a tavern denying the divinity of and blaspheming Mary. He denied nothing at trial, and the monks sentenced him — as a repeat offender and blasphemer — to death. They had to have a special scaffold erected since they'd never done this before. He was hung by the river in front of a crowd. The historical account in the museum stressed that the monks were awfully broken up about having to hang Nickel, and, if memory serves, never hanged anyone again.

I remember reading this and being more than a bit surprised, since I'd never heard of a monastery acquiring sovereignty, enacting a criminal code, and actually hanging someone. Perhaps I'm naive.

In any event, that's the story as I remember it, from my memory and blurry photos of the card. I think it's about 80% accurate. My bleg to you is if anyone can find me some other written sources about Joseph Nickel? 98% sure that's his name, because I drilled it into my memory. But I've never found anything more about him. An educated, free-thinking vagabond hanged by monks in the 1700s interests me. Can anyone point me to more information about Joseph Nickel?

The Secret Strangelove Bunker for West Germany’s Government Betrayed by a Gay Messenger of Peace

Last week I paid a visit to the 'Regierungsbunker,' (Government Bunker), a massive underground complex located near Bonn (West German capital until reunification) which was intended to shelter surviving members of the West German government from a nuclear attack. The core of the bunker was a never-finished railway tunnel under the lush red wine region of the Ahr Valley. Starting in the early 1960s, the tunnel was secretly re-opened and massively expanded to provide space for 3000 people in a sprawling underground complex comprising 17 kilometers. As Wikipedia notes, "The main portals were sealed by manoeuvrable steel and concrete gates built by MAN, each weighing 25 tonnes. The bunker housed 897 offices and 936 dormitories and had 25,000 doors in total. It even had an underground hairdresser's salon." There were even kiosks selling beer and snacks during the frequent training exercises. The whole thing could be sealed off by massive blast doors and circular barriers which rolled into place in 10 seconds.

The whole fabulously expensive thing was shut down in 1997, after the head of government relocated to Berlin. Since no civilian use for it could be found, the interior was completely stripped and sealed at a cost of €16 million. A 203-meter stretch was, however, preserved as a museum, and opened in 2008. The preserved stretch features a command center, infirmary, decontamination rooms, television studio, communications centers, wargames exercise rooms, and lots more institutional-green Cold War frippery from the 1960s and 70s. You'll want to check times before you go — you can only visit as part of a guided tour, and some days only permit groups to visit, not individuals. But it's well worth a visit.

One thing the guides will cheerily inform you is that the whole zillion-Euro complex was a waste of time. First, because it wouldn't have worked (Wikipedia again): 

In 2008 it became publicly known that the shelter would have just about withstood the detonation of a 20 kiloton bomb, comparable to the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb. Secret surveys conducted as early as 1962 had found that 250-times more powerful weapons were to be expected and it had been made clear that the bunker would collapse if ever hit by a nuclear bomb. Despite this known fact, however, construction was continued for political reasons.

And second, because the Commies knew about it almost from the get-go. Enter Dieter Popp (g). Dieter is a leftist West German who offered himself to the East German military counterintelligence service and became an East German spy in the West, a group known by the deathless East German euphemism Messengers of Peace (Kundschafter des Friedens). He recruited a friend of his, Egon Steffer, in what espionage experts called "an extremely rare use of the Romeo tactic [male version of the honey trap] among homosexuals". Steffer obtained a position handling secret documents and, through Popp, passed them to East Germany. These documents included detailed information regarding the bunker's existence and characteristics. Popp was sentenced to a short prison term after reunification, but protested to the Federal Constitutional Court that it was impermissible to prosecute someone for spying for a former country that was now part of the country that was prosecuting him. The FCC held that was no problem. Popp is still alive, and helps run a Bonn-based organization of former Messengers of Peace which seeks to convince the public that they were just that.

Below a few pictures from the Bunker:

Regierungsbunker Broadcasting Equipment Regierungsbunker Chancellor Meeting Room Furniture 2Regierungsbunker Comm CenterRegierungsbunker Disinfection RoomsaRegierungsbunker Emergency Amputation KitRegierungsbunker List of Ship and Code NamesRegierungsbunker Map Markers for War ExercisesRegierungsbunker Master Control Panel Safety Door DiagramsRegierungsbunker NATO Code Names for CountriesRegierungsbunker Postnuclear Satirical Poster DetailRegierungsbunker Price List for Refreshments During War ExerciseRegierungsbunker Radiation SuitRegierungsbunker Safety Poster 'Protect Your Eyes'Regierungsbunker Steuer-ScheiberRegierungsbunker Stripped Train TunnelRegierungsbunker Tebetron-E