When I wrote the chapter about Flensburg, Germany, in The Holy Diamond, I did so without having ever visited the city. I knew almost nothing about it, other than that the post-Hitler Nazi government led by Karl Doenitz and Albert Speer had been set up there and then arrested and disbanded soon after by the Allies. I selected the city as one of the chapters of my novel because I wanted to incorporate this final chapter of the Third Reich and because I wanted to write about a smaller town or city in Germany that few knew about.
Flensburg Train station sign (Photo: LH Dooley)
I visited Flensburg after completing the novel, and had two misconceptions corrected. First, while the city is within walking distance of Denmark (okay, it may be a long walk of more than 30 minutes, but the local bus from Flensburg train station ends its route in Denmark) it is nowhere near Hamburg. It’s a good two hours from the Hanseatic city (as Hamburg is often referred to) on a slow, winding train that passes through flatlands dominated by farms and pastures. Fortunately, Flensburg’s distance from Hamburg is not a critical plot element in The Holy Diamond and I had not suggested that they are any closer together than actuality.
My second misconception was that Flensburg was a dull, quiet town – little more than a village – that time had forgotten but for the end of the Second World War. This perception was based on the fairly sparse information and photos I found on the internet about the city, which mostly showed the same half dozen photos of the old port.
Flensburg Pedestrian Street, Holmen (Photo: LH Dooley)
My surprise, then, was enormous when I visited the city one sunny May day and was greeted by a small, bustling city with a long (perhaps one kilometer), shop-filled pedestrian street; timber-framed buildings (albeit sporadic); charming courtyards filled with boutiques and shops; up to one hundred sailboats including multi-mast, old style tall sailing ships; churches, and a scenic overlook. The city was humming on a weekday with shoppers, café-loungers, and even a few tourists. I had begun my visit by walking along both sides of the harbor, seeing just a few empty cafes and restaurants but enjoying the fresh, sea air. It was only an hour or so later that I discovered the actual center which was just a street up (west) from the water.
The Starbucks-like café that Hans and his friends meet in Flensburg is fabricated; but the location is real. The corner on Willy Brandt Platz that my fictional coffee shop is located is occupied by a restaurant, which itself was blocked by a construction site on the square.
A view of the port area, with the old Flensburg city center behind. (Photo: LH Dooley)
My final observation is that, sadly, the city makes poor use of its beautiful port. There are few restaurants along either side; and those that are there were empty or literally abandoned – boarded up as if they were in need of appearing in a novel to resurrect them. Lastly, there was not one sign, photo, or plaque indicating that the war had ended in this otherwise unknown border city. Nothing about Karl Doenitz going from President to Prisoner in a day; or Albert Speer’s latest drama that would later go into his best-selling autobiography. Fortunately thanks to history books and novels like The Holy Diamond (yes, this is a cheap pitch for my book), Flensburg is still remembered for May 1945 and the end of the Thousand Year Reich.