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The Brocken

The Brocken, or Blocksberg, is the highest peak (1142 meters) in the Harz Mountains in Germany, between the rivers Weser and Elbe. Despite its relatively low altitude, it tends to have snow cover from September to May; it is shrouded in mists and fogs up to 300 days of the year. Its climate is similar to mountains closer to 2000m high.

Today the Brocken is part of a national park, and is home to a historic botanical garden of mountain plants, founded in 1890. A steam train can take visitors to the railway station at the top, but there are also numerous hiking trails.

On this mountain the world's first television tower was built in 1935; it began by broadcasting the "Deutsche Reichspost". In 1936, it carried the first television broadcast of Olympic Summer Games (in Berlin). It continued functioning until September, 1939 as World War II began.

The Brocken was bombed by Allied forces on April 17, 1945. The Brocken Hotel and the weather station were completely destroyed, but the television tower was not. Americans used the installation from 1945 to 1947. Before the Americans left the Brocken in 1947, they disabled the weather station and the television tower and took all interesting technology with them.

From 1973 to 1976 a new modern television tower was built, near the old one, for the second GDR-TV. Today this tower is used for the second german TV station (ZDF - Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen).

From 1957 the Brocken was considered a security zone, and after construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961 it was named a military high security zone and turned into a fortress. Border troops were quartered at the Brocken railway station, and the Soviet 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. Build with 2,318 sections, each one 2.4 tons and 3.60 meters high. The wall has since been dismantled, as have the Russian barracks and the domes of their listening posts.

Literary mentions

The Brocken was famously described in Goethe's Faust 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, the "Teufelskanzel" (Devil's Pulpit) and "Hexenaltar" (Witches Altar).

Another famous visitor on the Brocken was Heinrich Heine. He wrote the book "Harzreise" (A Harz Journey). 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."

The Brocken Spectre

Brocken Spectre seen from a Caravelle aircraft at 35000 feet over France. The shadow of the aircraft is surrounded by a circular rainbow

Mountaineers have occasionally been spooked by a strange apparition: a towering, shadowy figure looming out from the mist, its head sheathed in shimmering rings.

The Brocken Spectre appears when the sun is low behind a climber who is looking down from a ridge or peak into mist. The climber's shadow is projected forward through the mist, often in an odd triangular shape due to perspective. The spectre appears to be huge because the mist obscures the reference points by which an observer can judge its size. The glow and rings are a "glory" centered directly opposite the sun at the antisolar point.

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