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Following an introductory synopsis of the history of the town of Coburg and its fortress this dissertation focuses on the history of local symbols from the late Middle Ages up to the present within the context of local commemorative culture.
The first object of research is the genesis of the city’s coat of arms, originating in 1354 with the portrait of Saint Maurice of Agaunum, first protector of the German Empire in the high Middle Ages and later patron saint of Coburg’s main parish church. In 1934 the mediaeval shield was replaced by a Nazi emblem with the swastika on a sword. This can be considered as a turning-point in the local commemorative culture. A second line of research outlines the influence of the city’s shield on effigies and statues presenting Coburg’s patron saint in person like the “Coburger Mohr”, the so-called “Bratwurschtmännle” or other “Coburgia” of the time around 1900. A third line within the development of local symbols is closely connected with the ducal dynasty of the House of Wettin starting at about 1800 and favouring the “Veste” Coburg (mediaeval spelling for fortress) as the residential town’s central symbol, a tradition which can even be recognized in the design of the city’s logo of our days. Finally the meaning of these symbols is being explored in respect to their importance as indicators of distinct identities within the urban society in the changing process of history.
The main purpose of this study is to create an understanding of Coburg’s visual symbols according to Karl Braun’s special approach of “thick description” (C. Geertz), which opens the possibility of describing cultural activities as well as categorizing different forms and levels of meaning within a certain framework of cultural rules. It is an approach based on Ernst Cassierer’s terminology of symbolic forms and on Victor Turner’s theory of rituals.
The “Mohrenkopf” begins to appear in the city’s coat of arms in the middle 14th century. From about the middle of the 16th century the Coburg fortress can be found there as the most important iconographic attribute of the residential town. The genesis of the Coburg fortress as a kind of sacred symbol of national veneration is closely linked to the Movement of Romanticism and tendencies directed against Enlightment and the Napoleonic occupation about 1800. Two reconstruction campaigns transformed the 17th century fortress into a pseudo-mediaeval monumental castle, strongly supported by two important motives: first the commemoration of Martin Luther’s stay on the castle during the Augsburg Imperial Diet in 1530 and his importance as a model for the movement of national unity in the wake of the so-called Wartburg Festival in 1817 and second Duke Ernest’s I. (1806-1844) romantic conception of mediaeval history commonly serving as a justification of power in early 19th century Germany.
About 1860 the author Gustav Freytag plays an important role in the leading group of the movement for liberalism and national unity in close cooperation with Coburg’s Duke Ernest II. (1844-1893). In his historical novel “Die Ahnen” (1872-1880) even some mythical importance is ascribed to Coburg castle alias “Idisburg” as a central location of the genesis of German national identity ranging from the period of late antiquity to the middle of the 19th century.
After the revolution and the abdication of the last Duke in 1918 Coburg joins the Catholic dominated Bavaria in 1920 by referendum, by this creating a new line of commemorative tradition mainly emphasizing the special role of the former dukedom ruled by the House of Wettin as a Protestant territory.
Following Hitler’s and his “SA” stormtroopers’ first appearance outside Munich in Coburg in 1922, this town develops to a central Nazi bridgehead in Franconia situated between Munich and the German capital Berlin. It becomes the first town with a Nazi majority in the city council in 1929. Celebrating Coburg as a “field of experiment in the process of seizing power” the Nazis eliminate the “Mohrenkopf” from the city’s coat of arms in 1934 and replace it by a shield which represents the “forge” of the “SA-sword”, by this underlining the leading part of the Coburg branch within the Nazi-movement since 1922.
After the end of the “Third Reich” the mediaeval coat of arms shows an astonishing ability of survival, even if in the period of the “Cold War” this new vitality may imply quite some ambivalent aspects. Owing to its union with Bavaria the town of Coburg and its district are the only former Thuringian territories which do not disappear behind the “Iron Curtain”. The “Coburger Mohr”, as the shield with its African head is called, apparently not entirely free from racial objections now has to stand behind in favour of a late mediaeval sculpture at the main parish church, the “Coburger Mauritius”, whose head with its more European looks from 1953 on serves as the official model of the Coburg coat of arms. In terms of anticommunist propaganda a new role is assigned to him as guardian of German unity, making use of his former position of protector of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation Coburg’s central position “in the Empire’s centre” – not only in the geographical sense of the word.
But in spite of various attempts of political misuse, the shield with the African head can well preserve its historical neutrality in close correspondence with popular consciousness. Its present-day form is first officially established and affirmed as shield norm in 1959. The Coburg city logo is designed in 1994 and modified in 2003 respectively in 2005 according to a supporting “corporate identity” process. Because of structural defects even this new symbol cannot displace the “Corburger Mohr”. There is plenty of evidence to confirm the widespread identification with “Veste” and “Mohr” inside and beyond the boundaries of Coburg.