THE PIPER’S RETURN solo show at Pictorem July 2019

July 5th 2019


Populist politicians… charismatic predators… totalitarian dictators…  there are a lot of Pipers about.

So the sinister old legend of the Pied Piper feels very contemporary.

The story seems to have originated in medieval times. The Brothers Grimm wrote it up early in the nineteenth century. It runs basically as follows:

Hamelin, a town in Germany, is afflicted by a plague of rats. A stranger in multicoloured (“pied”) clothes arrives. A  musician, a Piper with magical powers.  He offers to get rid of the rats, for a fee. The town’s authorities hire him. He plays to the rats on his pipe and enchants them, leading them out of town to their destruction.

But when the townsfolk refuse to pay him, his wrath is cataclysmic. He plays to the children of Hamelin, mesmerising them. They follow, dancing happily to their doom. In one version, they drown in the River Weser. In another, they vanish forever – all 130 of them- into the dark cavern of a mountain. In some accounts, three children survive, only because they physically can’t follow the others- one can’t see, one can’t walk, one can’t hear.

The story may have begun with a mysterious event that swept away the children of Hamelin late in the thirteenth century. But what it was, no one knows. The town’s chronicle of 1384 just says:It’s 100 years since our children left.”

What does it mean? The rats  (a later addition to the tale, it seems) evoke the deadly bubonic plagues which black rats were long thought to carry and spread. These plagues ravaged much of Europe in successive waves, the most catastrophic being The Black Death, around 1347-49.

Perhaps the story began as an echo of  The Children’s Crusade of around 1212, with its mass hysteria and charismatic leaders: children from Germany and France were said to have set out in their thousands to march to Jerusalem and reclaim the Holy Lands. They never made it. Instead, they ended up dying, drowning or being sold as slaves.

Or, the legend may relate to mass migration of young people from Hamelin, answering a call from foremen from eastern Europe promising work and riches- not so much children, then, as poor teenagers or young adults seduced by the lure of a better life. (Research suggests the names of people and places far to the east of Hamelin bear out this theory). Or this tale of a lost generation could be about the trafficking and rent/sale of children by their poverty-stricken parents.

It’s also been suggested  The Piper was a sexual predator, a prototype of the mass paedophile, a Jimmy Savile of the Middle Ages.

The legend is certainly  a brutal warning that we would all do well to pay our dues.

It also warns us about the abuse of power by demagogic leaders who prey on the young and gullible.

The ultimate  Piper of the twentieth century was Adolf Hitler. He orchestrated the brainwashing of a generation of children and led them to their apocalypse. Hitler and the Nazis sucessfully dehumanised the Jews and other groups in the minds of the  young by depicting them as “vermin” to be eradicated like plague rats.  It’s a classic demagogue tactic and we are hearing this language again.

In World War Two, Hamelin Prison was  used by the Nazi SS to imprison, torture and kill political prisoners. Things came full circle after the war, when British Occupation Forces executed Nazi war criminals in that very same prison. 202 were hanged there by  British hangman, Albert Pierrepoint.

Those he hanged included the notorious  death-camp guard, Irma Grese, variously known as The Hyena of Auschwitz and The Beast of Belsen.  Irma, brought up The Hitler Youth, had wanted to be a nurse . Ten years old when Hitler  came to power, she was only 22 when she  hanged.

Many of those executed were buried in the prison grounds near the River Weser. Later, their remains were reburied eslewhere. The prison is now a large hotel, where you can stay. There was controversy a few years ago after an entertainment weekend  involved people dressing as Nazis. There were some strong protests but it seems the hotel owners were unapologetic.