Episode 66 – The Myths of Barbarossa

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This week, after 15 episodes we will finally leave the emperor Barbarossa behind, though it is almost impossible to ever get away from him. No other medieval ruler is still so present in the national psyche, not as the man he was but as the myth he was turned into. So today we say goodbye to the man and next time we will take a look at the myth. 


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 66 – The myths of Barbarossa

We have just spent 15 episodes talking about the life and times of the actual Frederick Barbarossa. Exciting as his life was, his afterlife is almost as interesting. Don’t panic I will not go on for 15 episodes talking about the perception of the great emperor. Just give me 30 minutes and I promise it is worth it.

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As we mentioned last week, in its immediate aftermath emperor Barbarossa’s death was seen as a bad one. Drowning in a river that all his companions crossed without a glitch, taken just when he was going to Jerusalem to fulfil what he believed to be his destiny and not having confessed before he died. This could only mean one thing, God disapproved of the venture and of the man.

It took until the mid-13th century for chroniclers and acolytes of the Hohenstaufen to wash off the stain of an unconfessed death. They alter the story so that Barbarossa gets dragged out of the river half dead but fit enough to properly confess before dying.

That helps his legacy but does not yet make him the shining beacon of the imperial dynasty.

Once the house of Hohenstaufen had fallen the Holy Roman empire went into a chaotic period often called the interregnum. Popular myth sprang up, talking again of a Last Emperor who would bring about the end of time. But that emperor was not Frederick Barbarossa, but his grandson, Frederick II. Frederick II had died in Sicily in 1250 and is buried in Palermo, a long way from Germany. Papal propaganda had falsely declared him dead several times before he actually died, which is why rumours kept going around that he was still alive.

False Fredericks would appear in Germany, claiming to be the emperor himself or at least his trueborn son. One of these, a man named Tile Kolup manages to set up his own court, corresponds with several princes, takes over the city of Wetzlar and had to be brought down by an army sent by king Rudolf of Habsburg.

Tile Kolup’s claim was made even more believable by the appearance of a “black chamberlain”.

As time went by the probability of the actual emperor coming back turned into a myth that Frederick II was simply asleep waiting for the moment his people really needed him. Once he wakes up, so the folk tales believed, he would perform the acts of the last emperor, take Jerusalem, put down his crown in the church of the Holy sepulchre and bring about a 1000-year long reign during which Satan would be chained.

The hope for the return of the emperor Frederick remained strong for centuries and a many pseudo-Fredericks emerged, mainly in periods of stress and turmoil. When the Black Death hit in 1348 the Franciscan friar John of Wintherthur reported alarming tales of Frederick’s imminent return. Frederick, he reports would bring full justice to everyone. Stolen property will be returned to widows and orphans and -great news – poor maidens would be married to rich men and working-class lads to wealthy cougars. That he thought was great, but what frightened the friar was that the emperor was eager to persecute the clergy so that if they have no other means of hiding their tonsures, they will cover them with cow dung. The word that describes that kind of headgear has no room in a family show, though it is apparently it is also a popular card game.

Just as the reformation is getting going, the figures of Frederick II and Barbarossa started to merge into one. In 1519 the “Folk Book of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa” appears in print. It offers a weird concoction of historic events of both emperors but ascribes all of them to Barbarossa. It also made up a few, including that Barbarossa had been betrayed to Saladin by the pope, then took revenge on Venice where the pope allegedly lived. The pope in his extreme arrogance ordered Frederick to kneel and put his foot on the imperial neck, a treatment he accepted out of misguided piety.  And, Barbarossa did not die in the river Saleph but still lives in a hollow mountain. He would rise again and – so the unknown authors believe, will return to punish the clergy.

And with that his avatar is off to the races. From this point forward at all the major junctions of German history the shadow of the old emperor appears, every time taking on a new guise that reflects the dreams and hopes of his people.

The first to press this mythical Barbarossa into national service are the protestants.

The story of pope Alexander III putting his foot on the neck of the German emperor is reprinted ferociously and formed part of antipapal and anticlerical propaganda. Luther himself believed that his patron, the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony who was a descendant of Barbarossa had fulfilled part of the prophecy by freeing the church from the shackles of papal control. Barbarossa in the protestant interpretation was the defender of the true faith against the corrupt church hierarchy.

It is around this time that the location of the hollow mountain where Barbarossa allegedly sleeps shifts to the Kyffhaeuser mountain, the central part of a small mountain range in Thuringia. The plateau of the Kyffhaeuser had been the site of a castle originally built by Henry IV and enlarged by Barbarossa. The Pfalz of Tilleda, site of several royal assemblies lies just below the mountain. Barbarossa had been there, though it was not one of his habitual residences. Why he was believed to be there and not somewhere near say Gelnhausen or Kaiserslautern, places he had built and stayed very regularly is a unclear. It may have to do with a battle during the peasant’s war or an event in 1546 where 300 people saw an old, bearded man walking through the woods and mistook him for the ancient emperor.

In subsequent centuries Barbarossa disappeared from people’s minds. The enlightenment and its total disdain for the Middle Ages had no room for such old folk tales. Barbarossa became nothing but a silly fable.

It was the Romantics who rediscovered Barbarossa and the tale of his sleep inside the Kyffhaeuser mountain. They had begun to discover the Hohenstaufens initially as a source for dramatic stories. The tale of Agnes, daughter of Barbarossa’s half-brother who eloped with Henry of Brunswick, member of the house of Welf and eternal enemy of the Hohenstaufen was turned into some Germanic Juliet.

There were also nearly 100 plays or fragments of plays about Konradin, the last of the Hohenstaufen who ended his life being beheaded on the main square of Naples upon orders of Charles of Anjou. That story provided an ideal foil to project all the great Germanic values onto Konradin and paint Charles as a perfidious Frenchman.

The resurrection of the myth of Barbarossa was down to the Brothers Grimm. The brothers grimm, the ones who wrote Cinderella, Rumpelstiltzkin, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding hood, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beaty, Puss in Boots, the thing about kissing a frog and 575 more. Essentially most all Disney’s movie output before they hit upon Marvel movies and the concept of massively overstretching minor characters in Star Wars sagas. Anyway, one of those 585 tales was a brief story that Barbarossa was sitting at a stone table inside the Kyffhaeser Mountain, his beard already long enough to go twice around the table and waiting to be woken. He woke up from time to time to check whether the ravens were still circling the mountain. As long as they did, he would have to sleep for another 100 years.

Brothers Grimm

In 1816 this story catches fire. The Napoleonic wars have just ended. Led by Prussia many German states have fought and defeated the French at the battle of the Nations near Leipzig and at Waterloo. For the first time volunteers, the Freikorps, fought, not for some prince or king, but for themselves, their freedom and their country.

The glorious war was followed by a disappointing peace. The great powers, England, Austria, Russia, Prussia and Bourbon France agreed on a system of mutual support for autocratic rule. This was a bitter pill for both the liberal and the nationalists who had dreamed of a unified Germany with some form of democratic participation.

Similar to that other fragmented country in Europe, Italy, the Germans desperately searched for a national narrative that fit with their hopes and beliefs. I talked a bit about that in episode 20 – A Blank Canvas where we explored how the Ottonians were used and abused in the various definitions of the national destiny.

Otto the Great and Henry the Fowler were major components of this historymaking, but the myth of Barbarossa is the Granddaddy of them all. The reason he is so compelling is that his story includes a rebirth of the broken empire. Barbarossa had inherited a realm torn apart by civil war. That civil war could at least partially be blamed on foreigners, most specifically the popes.

Barbarossa brought back peace and unity, let others participate in the state, rebuild the honour of the empire and faced up against the most powerful force of his time, the popes and their allies. That fits neatly into what the pre 1848 generation dreamed of – unity, freedom and national pride.  

Friedrich Ruckert brings it all together in a poem from 1817. It goes like this:

The ancient Barbarossa,

Frederick the Kaiser great,

Within the castle cavern,

sits in enchanted state

He did not die; but ever

Waits in the chamber deep,

Where hidden under the castle

He sat himself to sleep

The splendour of the Empire

He took with him away

And back to earth will bring it

When dawns the promised day.

This poem used to be the German equivalent of “Paul Revere’s ride”. Compulsory reading for schoolchildren after 1871 and shaping many an impressionable mind.

In 1848 a group of Patriots climb the Kyffhaeser Mountain, raise the Black, Red, Gold flag of the national revolution and sing a poem meant to waken the ancient emperor. Barbarossa, we heard, did not wake up.

Barbarossa becomes the icon of the yearning for national unity.

The Barbarossa enthusiasm did have its critics though, Heinrich Heine most prominent amongst them.

Heine wrote a poem, Germany, a Winter’s tale. It was a satirical look at what he saw as the backwardness of the country in 1844, its obsession with the Middle Ages and Militarism that made him fearful of the future.

His poem begins with: “Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht” which translates as “When I think of Germany at night, it puts my sleep to flight”. And other great ones like his observation about Prussian soldiers: “als hätten sie den Stock verschluckt mit dem sie einst geschlagen“ again translates as „as if they had swallowed the rod they had once been beaten with.

Okay, full disclosure, I love Heinrich Heine. Heine believed Barbarossa to be a useless, old relic that epitomises the parochialism, the dream of ancient glories that blinds his compatriots to the ideals of liberty, freedom and brotherhood the French Revolution had created.  

Heine takes goes straight for the mythical emperors jugular.

In a dream he finds the emperor not sitting at his table but shuffling through the vast halls of his lair filled to the brim with weapons and thousands of sleeping soldiers all waiting for his call to rise up and free the German people. Asked why he has not yet acted, Barbarossa replies that he is still not quite happy with the number of horses at his disposal. “I wait until their number is complete and then I will strike and free my people who will wait faithfully for my arrival”. Va piano, va sano he says.

Having delighted the old emperor with tales of the guillotine and the demise of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette he goes:

“Sir Redbeard! – I cried out loud – You’re a mythical creation. Go, off to sleep! Without your help we’ll work out our salvation. The republicans would laugh at us If a ghost with sceptre and crown came marching as the head of our ranks – They’d laugh us out of town. It would be best if you stayed at home here in the old Kyffhauser – When I consider the matter carefully, It is clear we don’t need a Kaiser.”

Heinrich Heine was as ever so often right, but again, as ever so often, his call remained unheeded.

A Kaiser duly appeared in 1871, Wilhelm I. A man with a luxurious white beard that would make any hipster go green with envy. In this next iteration of the Barbarossa myth, he, William I became Barbablanca, the White beard successor to Barbarossa Redbeard and the man who fulfilled his mission, as saviour of the country.

For that to happen a number of obstacles had to be overcome. The first one was that the Hohenzollerns did not have much affinity to Barbarossa. The kings of Prussia were relative nouveau riches amongst the great German families. Their ancestors had been the counts of Zollern whilst the other major families in the empire, the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, the Wettin of Saxony and the Zaehringer of Baden had already been imperial princes in the 12th century.  Moreover, the Holy Roman Empire of Barbarossa was usually associated with the Habsburgs, the Prussians main rival for dominance in Germany

The politician and historian Johann Gustav Droysen tried to bridge the gap. He pointed out that the Hohenstaufen had also risen from obscure beginnings to dukes of Swabia in 1079 and proceeded from there to unite the empire. More than that, Barbarossa’s anti-papal policies mirrored those of protestant Prussia.

At the same time as Droysen was moulding a 12th century emperor into a 19th century role model, genuine historians got to work on the Middle Ages.

The towering figure here is Wilhelm von Giesebrecht whose monumental Geschichte der Deutschen Kaiserzeit” or ”History of the German imperial times” graced most middle class households in the same way Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was de rigeur on British bookshelves.

Now I have to make a confession. I have a soft spot for Giesebrecht. Sure, he is a product of his time and some of his views can make your toes curl up and some of his findings have by now been overturned. But he has the detail, he sticks fairly close to the primary sources and most importantly, the man could write. Write in a way that I find it hard to put the book down.

Combine that with the need for a national narrative and it is no wonder that Giesebrecht’s history of the  Ottonians, Salians and Staufer captured the imagination of the nation.

Not just that, but the proper investigation of the medieval history triggered the famous Historian’s debate of 1859-1862, which was not just a debate about historical events, but also a debate about whether Germany should be a Prussian led “smaller Germany” or an Austrian-led “Larger Germany”.

We discussed that in episode 20 already and after several attempts to write it up again in a different way, I concluded the way I laid it out then is still the best. So, I will largely repeat wat I said then:

In the Prussian corner we have Heinrich von Sybel (1817-1895). An accomplished historian and, like Giesebrecht, trained by the godfather of the modern science of history, Leopold von Ranke. He argued that Henry the Fowler was the greatest Ottonian ruler since he focused on unifying the German stems, defending the realm against the Magyars, and expanding eastwards. Amongst the later rulers he liked Henry II and Lothar III, but his biggest hero was Henry the Lion who drove the Eastward expansion into Pomerania. On the other hand, he thought Otto the Great was misguided and did terrible harm to Germany by going after the imperial crown. The entanglement in Italy forced him and his successors to waste blood and treasure in fruitless fights with the Italian states and most of all, the papacy. Taking the eye off the ball in Germany allowed the local princes to expand their power which ultimately led to the collapse of central authority in Germany and all the misery ever since. His bottom line was that Germany should focus on inner unity and coherence and avoid entanglement with foreigners in general and Roman Catholics in particular. Barbarossa focus on Italy was in his eyes the most fatal of mistakes.

In the Austrian corner we have Johann von Ficker (1826-1902), unfortunate name but also a gifted writer. He argued that the imperial project of Otto the Great and Otto III was neither a true empire nor a nation state but an ambitious and benevolent attempt to bring together the members of multiple nations under one roof. It was no coincidence that this model of the reign of Otto the Great looked a lot like the then Austrian empire which comprised many nations including Hungarians, Czech, Poles, Croats, Slovacs, Slovenians and many more who allegedly lived happily under Emperor Franz Joseph’s benevolent rule. Otto the Great and Barbarossa were his heroes.

Though v. Sybel took the Prussian in inverted commas position, the freshly made Kaiser Wilhelm I influenced by his son did not go along. Instead, they went for some sort of pick’n mix that they then consolidated in the next iteration of mythical Barbarossa.

They took a bit of Doryen’s notion of Barbarossa as an anticlerical ruler who consolidated the empire after a period of weakness inflicted by foreign powers. They took v. Sybels’s notion that the Italian entanglement was the source of all evil. Barbarossa, so the story goes, wanted to go east but was held back by the nasty popes and treacherous princes. And they took a bit of v. Ficker when they emphasised the universal nature of Barbarossa’s title as emperor.

That way they could draw a direct line from the “first” empire, the Holy Roman empire of Barbarossa to the “Second” empire that of the Hohenzollern, of Wilhelm I, Barbablanca. This happened quite quickly. When Wilhelm I addressed the Reichstag on March 21st, 1871, two months after the formal creation of the Kaiserreich on January 18th, the emperor was sitting on a bronze throne that had been made for emperor Henry IV around 1075 and had stood in Goslar for centuries.

Now the weirdness factor is turned up to 11. Bismarck sends out an expedition to Tyre to find the bones of Barbarossa. The plan is to bury them in Cologne cathedral, which had been left half finished since 1473. Though plans had been under way to complete the works, these accelerated after 1871 and in the midst of the Kulturkampf the protestant state of Prussia funded the completion of a catholic cathedral to house the bones of an emperor who would have much preferred to be buried in the traditional mausoleum of his ancestors, the cathedral of Speyer.

Next step was the rebuilding of the Pfalz in Goslar, a building that had been in a desolate state. Wilhelm I began its renovation in 1866 and by 1876 the ministry of culture asked for proposals to decorate the main hall. The project was won by Hermann Wislicenus, a professor at the academy of fine art in Dusseldorf. He and his assistants will spend the next 20 years producing a total of 53 paintings.

I have unfortunately not seen it myself, but it is high up on my list of places to visit because it sounds proper mad.

The fresco cycle starts off with Sleeping Beaty as a personification of Germany on one wall and emperor Wilhem on the opposite side as the prince who awakens her. Below Wilhelm is Barbarossa’s awakening, who, sword in hand, looks towards the great central painting of the foundation of the Second Empire.

And Barbarossa appears several more times, once kneeling before Henry the Lion in 1176 which symbolises the treachery by the princes that led to the downfall of imperial power. Opposite it is a picture showing Henry the Lion kneeling before Barbarossa at the diet of Erfurt in 1181 interpreted at the time as Barbarossa’s great achievement but as we now know his political low point.

Next, he appears at Besancon, rejecting the demands of pope Hadrian IV to be his vassal. This symbolises, together with a picture showing a caged pope Gregory VI being taken into exile across the alps by Henry III the firm rejection of papal interference in German affairs. And then finally he has a great stage appearance in a picture showing his last battle against the Turkish sultan at Konya. What that is to symbolise is unclear, maybe it was simply the only major open battle he had won. Pushing siege engines with hostages chained to the front just does not have the same vibe.

It all culminates in a huge allegorical image that shows the creation of the Second Empire. Wilhelm I is shown of horseback, king Ludwig II of Bavaria hands him the crown, something that never happened, for once because there was no crown and for seconds because Ludwig II had accepted a busload of cash for not opposing the creation of the empire but did not think that was enough for him to leave his kitsch castles in Herrenchiemsee, Linderhof or Neuschwanstein he built with that cash.

Then you have the people who were in fact involved in the real word creation of the empire. There are the other princes nodding approvingly, Otto von Bismarck swinging a distinctly unimpressive hammer onto the foundation stone and Field Marshalls Moltke and Roon looking mighty pleased with themselves.

They share their space with some allegorical figures. Alsace and Lorraine personified as maidens enthralled by Wilhelm’s beard and up in the sky are the Queen Louise holding the medieval imperial crown above her son’s head whilst Barbarossa as a godlike figure up in the heavens points at the events below as if to give its blessing.

That is pretty weirs as is. But for anyone who did not get the message, there are two equestrian statues outside the rebuild palace featuring Frederick I, Barbarossa and Wilhelm I, Barbablanca. The link between first and second empire is made stone and bronze.

Fun fact, once the fresco cycle was completed the new emperor Wilhelm II, Kaiser Bill to you and me, did not like it much. Neither he nor any other member of the imperial family went to the grand opening.

Kaiser Bill objected to the concept that the second empire was described as a culmination of German rather than Prussian history and just generally the notion that anyone else, other than his grandfather had anything to do with the success of 1871. In particular not Bismarck who he had just fired.

To ensure that the new imperial ideology was made into an even more impressive monumnet, Kaiser Bill got closely involved with the other, even more astounding monument to Barbarossa, the Kyffhaeser memorial.

Though this was built over the mountain in which the old emperor allegedly slept, it was designed and built not as a memorial to him, but to glorify the new emperor, Wilhelm I. And only Wilhelm I – nobody else.

The monument had been proposed and financed by the army veteran’s association. It is placed on the site of the medieval castle of the Kyffhaeser which dates back to 1118 and stretched 600m along the ridge of the mountain. The largest medieval structure left was the so-called tower of Barbarossa at one end.

The monument was built at the other end. It is 81 m tall and 130m wide, carved partially into the mountainside and visible for miles around. Its main feature is a 9.7m tall statue of emperor Wilhelm I as its focal point accompanied by personifications of war and history.  Behind the statue rises a 54m tall tower topped by the non-existent crown of the Second empire.

Barbarossa is there. They couldn’t really ditch him completely. But he is down at the base of the tower, his statue looking somewhat unfinished mainly for financial reasons. He is just about to stir, though he is no longer needed as Wilhelm had done the deed he never got round to. Kaiser Bill it seems had no need for medieval relics.

And he did not have much need for anyone else who could detract from his grandpa’s achievements.  When the veteran’s association who funded the whole enterprise suggested to add some canons and military standards to the complex he rejected it. Same goes for statues of the main architects of the new Reich, say Bismarck, Moltke at a minimum, maybe Scharnhort? No, nobody. Just grandpa. This time it was Bismarck who refused to come to the great opening.

After the fall of the monarchy in 1918 the right wind nationalists evoked the “spirit of the Kyffhaeser”, an idea of rebuilding the nation from its ruin, preferably by some great man.

Hitler and the Nazis appropriated not just the Kyffhaeser but most of German history, including Barbarossa and twisted it to their needs.

The concept of a Third Reich is a natural next step after Barbarossa’s First Reich and Wilhelm I’s Second Reich. And the notion of Reich that lasts a Thousand years goes straight back to the prophecy of the Last Emperor.

When you put Barbarossa into Google search, all but one reference is for Operation Barbarossa, the failed invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Why it was called Barbarossa is curious. The Ideological underpinning of the attack was to expand east and conquer “Lebensraum” for the Aryan race.

Barbarossa pursued many political initiatives, executed U-turns and reoriented when necessary. One thing he never showed much interest in was the eastern expansion of the empire. That was the great ambition of Henry the Lion. When the name of Henry the Lion was proposed as the codename for the operation, apparently Hitler refused. He insisted to go in the name of an emperor instead of a duke because it sounded better.

Immediately after the war Barbarossa is shapeshifting again.

Friedrich Heer, an Austrian writer and intellectual likened Barbarossa’s policies in Italy to Hitler’s activities in occupied Europe. He described the years between 1157 and 1167 in Italy as a lordship of horror that Germans had imposed on Italian cities. He blames all that on Rainald von Dassel, the chancellor of Barbarossa. After von Dassel’s death so he thought, Barbarossa reverted back to be a realistic medieval monarch which resulted in a great flowering of art and culture. Barbarossa as a part time Hitler.

But come the cold war and the reintegration of West Germany into the European nations, Barbarossa is reinterpreted again. Now not as an autocrat seeking world domination, but as a ruler who maintained close and friendly relationships with the kings of England and France. A primus inter pares more like.

The disastrous experience with a unified Germany led to a re-evaluation of the political fragmentation of the country and hence the role of the princes in the Middle Ages. Suddenly they are no longer the villains but the starting point of the varied and decentralised German culture, its plethora of small and large cities housing artists, writers, composers and playwrights. Barbarossa’s leniency towards the centrifugal powers had made Goethe and schiller in Weimar a possibility.

In 1977 the great Staufer exhibition that I mentioned at the very beginning of this series was staged in Stuttgart and turned out to be an unexpected success. It was meant not to celebrate the national importance of the Hohenstaufen, but their roots in the ancient duchy of Swabia, roughly equivalent to the newly created state of Baden-Württemberg.

Ministerpresident Filbinger of Baden Württemberg proclaimed that the objective of the Hohenstaufen had been a humane one. They never intended to establish an autocratic state but aimed to provide a universal order of law and peace. Protection of the rights of the individual were at the heart of their policies. Something to be proud of in German history as a counterpoint to the Nazi horrors. And in a typical German twist, Filbinger had to resign a year later having been accused of having pushed for the death penalty in a case of desertion when he was a public prosecutor in the Navy during the war. His guilt is still in dispute.

Hans Filbinger

Whilst the Western Germans were flailing about trying to get to grips with their former national symbol, so did the East Germans. Initially the communists wanted to blow up the Kyffhaeser memorial as a symbol of militarism. But the soviets objected.

Let’s go to the last twist, the architect Bruno Schmitz who designed the Kyffhaeser also built the even larger memorial of the battle of nations near Leipzig (the Volkerschlachtdenkmal), the monument to Wilhelm I and Herman the German in the Teutoburg Forest as well as the Deutsche Eck in Koblenz. Alongside this top trumps of German nationalism, he also designed the similarly sized memorial for the Sailors and Soldiers in Indianapolis, commemorating American soldiers who had died for freedom and democracy. The difference in ideology did not translate into a material difference in design.

The debate about the role of Barbarossa as a national symbol is still ongoing. Who knows what mythical shape he is going to take from here. In 2002 the State of Baden Württemberg erected a stele on the Hohenstaufen, the initial home of the dynasty. Its inscription reads:


A Mountain

A Castle

A Dynasty

An Epoch

A Myth

And with that we put Barbarossa to bed. The next few episodes will attempt to paint a picture of Germany in around 1190, similarly to what we did about Germany in the year 1000. I have to ask for a bit of patience. Summer holidays are coming up and airlines and ferry companies have little respect for podcast schedules. I will try to stick to the Thursday morning release but please do not be upset if you sometimes find an episode is later than usual or if there is a longer gap between them.

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