The Brocken

The witches dancing place on Broken Mountain. German postcard showing the Hexentanzplatz. Held to light it shows one scene....
The witches dancing place on Broken Mountain. German postcard showing the Hexentanzplatz. Held to light it shows one scene….
The Brocken, or Blocksberg, is the highest peak (1142 metres) in the Harz Mountains in Germany (located between the rivers Weser and Elbe) and also the highest peak of northern Germany. Although its altitude is below alpine dimensions, its microclimate resembles that of mountains of 2000 m altitude. The peak tends to have a snow cover from September to May, and mists and fogs shroud it up to 300 days of the year. The mean annual temperature is only 2.9 °C.

The Brocken has always played a role in legends and has been connected with witches and devils; Goethe took up the legends in his Faust, in which he also referred to the mountain.

Today the Brocken is part of a national park and hosts a historic botanical garden of mountain plants, founded in 1890. A narrow gauge steam train takes visitors from Wernigerode to the railway station at the top. The mountain features numerous hiking trails.

FM-radio and television broadcasting make major use of the Brocken. The old TV tower has an observation deck, open to tourists. For more information, see Transmitter Brocken.

20th Century History

On this mountain the world’s first television tower was built in 1935; it began by broadcasting the “Deutsche Reichspost”. It carried the first television broadcast of the Olympic Games — from the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. The tower continued functioning until September, 1939, when the authorities suspended broadcasting on the outbreak of World War II.

Allied forces bombed the Brocken on April 17, 1945, destroying the Brocken Hotel and the weather station, but not the television tower. American forces used the installation from 1945 to 1947. Before the Americans left the Brocken in 1947, they disabled the rebuilt weather station and the television tower.

Between 1973 to 1976 a new modern television tower was built for the second GDR-TV. Today the second German TV station (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen or ZDF) uses this tower.

From 1957 the Brocken constituted a security zone, and after construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961, East German authorities designated it as a military high-grade security zone and turned it into a fortress. Due to its high altitude the station also served to spy on communication signals from the surrounding area. Border troops took up quarters at the Brocken railway station, and the Soviet Red Army used a large portion of territory. The Stasi (East German secret police) used the television tower until 1985, when they moved to a new building — now a museum. To seal the area, the entire Brocken plateau was then surrounded by a concrete wall, built from 2,318 sections, each one 2.4 tons in weight and 3.60 metres high. The wall has since been dismantled, as have the Russian barracks and the domes of their listening posts.

The Brocken Spectre or Brocken Bow

A strange apparition has occasionally frightened climbers on the Brocken: a towering, shadowy figure looms out from the mist, its head sheathed in rainbow rings.

This Brocken Spectre appears when the sun shines from behind a climber who is looking down from a ridge or peak into mist. The light projects the climber’s shadow forward through the mist, often in an odd triangular shape due to perspective. The spectre appears huge because the mist obscures the reference points by which an observer can judge its size, and because the shadow falls on water droplets of varying distances from the eye, confusing depth perception. The “ghost” can appear to move (sometimes quite suddenly) because of the movement of the cloud layer. The glow and rings constitute a “glory”, a circular rainbow-like phenomenon centered directly opposite the sun.

This type of “spectre” can appear on any misty mountainside (or even from an aircraft), but the frequent fogs and low-altitude accessibility of the Brocken have created a local legend.

Literary mentions

Goethe described the Brocken in his Faust (written in 1808) as the center of revelry for witches on Walpurgis Night (April 30; the eve of St Walpurga’s Day on May 1).

Now to the Brocken the witches ride;
The stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

Goethe may have gained inspiration from two rock formations on the mountain’s summit, the Teufelskanzel (Devil’s Pulpit) and the Hexenaltar (Witches’ Altar).

Another famous visitor on the Brocken, author Heinrich Heine, wrote the book Harzreise (“A Harz Journey” — published in 1826). He says: “The mountain somehow appears so Germanically stoical, so understanding, so tolerant, just because it affords a view so high and wide and clear. And should such mountain open its giant eyes, it may well see more than we, who like dwarfs just trample on it, staring from stupid eyes.”

Slothrop and Geli Tripping experience the famous Brocken Spectre in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Brocken in popular culture

  • The heavy metal band Fates Warning titled their debut album Night on Brocken. The title track relects the Witches Sabbath on Walpurgis Night. The title of the band’s second album — The Spectre Within — probably takes its inspiration from the Brocken Spectre, but the content does not allude to it directly.
  • The song “Born in a Burial Gown” by Cradle of Filth (from the album Bitter Suites to Succubi) contains an allusion to the Brocken’s history as a witches’ gathering-place.
  • The band Black Sabbath wrote a song called “Walpurgis”, which talked about witches gathering to perform paganistic rituals. Later, the lyrics were changed, and the title became “War Pigs”. The lyrics talk about the generals of war, and their evils. An example of the original song can be found on the Ozzy Osbourne album The Ozzman Cometh.
  • The punk band Liars’ album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned is a concept album loosely based on the tales of witches gatherings on The Brocken as well as witch trials.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from the Wikipedia article “The Brocken“.