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German History from the Margins



German History from the Margins

In   Clemens      Brentano's     novella,    "Die    Mehreren       Wehmüller       und   ungarische
Nationalgesichter" (1817),1 the characters of the fictional world are assembled at a
geographical and symbolic margin as constituted by the "Pestkordon", a frontier which,
as it turns out, is based on a misunderstanding and mistake. Unnecessary and temporary
as it may be, its effects are disastrous. Identities are confused, couples and families
separated, livelihoods threatened, and, above all, control is taken out of the hands of the
actors. In the end, the margin that separates them is transformed into the same margin
that reunites the numerous split personalities of the novella. Crucially, this unification is
accomplished through a fictional character who crosses the fake border of the
Pestkordon, exposing its artificiality while simultaneously transcending it. Surprisingly,
this courageous character is not only a woman, she also resembles an amazon, and is
ethnically identified as a Gypsy.2 The margin here becomes the centre of action, and the
marginalised gypsy becomes the agent in overcoming borders, thus linking the discourse
of the gypsy with that of the patriotic and nationalist discourse of German liberation and
unification. Why should the gypsy, the social outcast, eschewed, shunned and spurned by
society, subjected to a contemporary objectifying anthropological and ethnographic
scientific discourse,3 become the literary agent of utopian ideas?

Some easy answers to this question are close at hand. The gypsy, as an outcast of society,
offers the artist a welcome identificatory potential, especially as her existence at the
margins of society is associated with freedom from conventions and norms, free
movement and the romantic image of a worry-free life without external responsibilities.

  Clemens Brentano, „Die Mehreren Wehmüller und Ungarische Nationalgesichter“, ed. by Jürgen Behrens
and Gerhard Kluge. Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. Frankfurter Brentano Ausgabe. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer,
1987, 19, p. 251-311.
   I use the term “Gypsy“ whenever referring to the literary image and practice of assigning a specific
meaning to a character which is intended and or received as the information paradigm which this term
represents. When referring to people who count themselves as members of the ethnic and/or socio-
economic groups of Sinti or other ethnic groups subsumed under the term of Roma, Travellers and other
itinerant groups, I use the terms “Romany”, “Roma”, “Sinti” or “Traveller”.
   particularly yet not exclusively through Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann’s study: Historischer
Versuch über die Zigeuner, Göttingen: 1787².


If we add to this the symbolic proximity of the exotic and uncivilised, natural and noble
savage in which the Gypsy finds herself, her attraction to the Romantic artist in particular
is obvious. But, I would argue, the significance of the Gypsy figure in German literature
of the late 18th and early 19th century is rooted more deeply. Rather than being a motivic
foil of independence and freedom, the contemporary image of the Gypsy touches on a
myriad of connotations which the artist was able to utilise and elaborate upon in order to
formulate more complex arguments. Rather than offering a literary retreat from reality,
the Gypsy figure offers a definite subversive potential, of which, nevertheless, the status
of the Gypsy within contemporary society is excluded.4

The turn of the 18th to the 19th century saw a rise in concern with Romanies. Initiated by
the ethnographic study, itself largely due to the popularity of its topic, by Heinrich
Grellmann from 1783 and 1787, the Gypsy soon made her way into the corpus of
literature. Even contributions to scientific research were only rarely based on the reality
of the Sinti living in Germany since the early 15th century. We are more precisely
confronted with a direct line of plagiarism,5 of scholars who lacked any contact with the
people they wrote about. Only Grellmann slightly challenged the plagiary practice by
refuting many myths associated with the Sinti but put in their place their oriental origin
and ethnic difference. This ethnic argument leads him to the conclusion that the ethnicity
of the Sinti determines their behaviour and therefore permanently excludes them from
civilised and enlightened society. All the more surprising it is, then, that the very, mostly
negative, myths which are so heavily exposed for their superstitious nature and were the
basis for a first wave of social exclusion of the Romanies, reappear, albeit with a new and
positive interpretation, in the literary discourse of the Gypsy.

  Ingrid and Günter Oesterle (1996) have argued to a certain extent in similar terms in "Die Affinität des
Romantischen zum Zigeunerischen oder die verfolgten Zigeuner als Metapher für die gefährdete
romantische Poesie" (in Holger Helbig, Bettina Knauer and Gunnar Och (eds.), Hermeneutik /
Hermenautik, Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, p. 95-108) that the fascination with Gypsies is more
than merely based on the artist's identification with her marginal status in society. However I diverge from
the reasons they give in this respect. The literary interest in the Gypsy was not accompanied by a similar
and sympathetic interest with actual Sinti.
  See for instance Martin Ruch, Zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte der deutschsprachigen "Zigeunerforschung"
von den Anfängen bis 1900, Freiburg: 1986 and Martins-Heuß, Zur Mythischen Figur des Zigeuners in der
Deutschen Zigeunerforschung, Frankfurt/Main: Haag & Herchen, 1983, p. 59.


The literary Gypsy figure sets out as a marginal character. In Goethe's Götz von
Berlichingen (1804),6 this marginality is translated into spatial terms by locating the
Gypsy camp in the forest, as well as in structural terms by increasingly limiting their
relevance and length of occurrence in the drama in the various stages of its development.7
In Schiller's Jungfrau von Orleans,8 Johanna encounters a Gypsy who gives her the
helmet that will inspire her transformation into a feared warrior. This episode is merely
narrated as a Botenbericht, thus excluding the Gypsy woman from the personelle of the
play. Still quantitatively marginal, but qualitatively making their way into the centre,
Gypsies are present in Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas (1808)9 and Goethe's
Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795/96). In the former, the character of Mignon indicates
the ambivalence associated with the gypsy and thus sets the ground for further
exploration. In the latter, the Gypsy character of Lisbeth is the narrative and perspectivic
focus of the novella, perceived as a foreign element just as Gypsies are perceived as
foreign elements in spite of their presence in Germany since the early 15th century.
Finally, Gypsy characters take central stage in the Brentano novella "Die mehreren
Wehmüller" (1817), his only recently edited drama fragment Zigeunerin,10 Arnim’s
Isabella von Ägypten (1812)11 and finally Caroline von Wolzogen's prose Die Zigeuner
(1826/27).12 At the same time, the period of 1781 to 1803 saw an unprecedented non-
fictional interest in the Gypsies, which is documented by nine major publications in only
22 years, while previously and subsequently this would indicate the number of major and
minor publications for the length of a century.13

In non-fictional, i.e. mainly ethnographic, journalistic and criminologistic writings,
representations of Gypsies are of a negative nature throughout. This includes both the
description of their behaviour as well as that of their outer appearance, which is perceived
as dark, foreign and ugly. At the same time as the literary and ethnologic fashion of the

  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Götz von Berlichingen,
  FN to be added to an article with this argument
  Friedrich Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans,
  Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas,
   Clemens Brentano, Zigeunerin, ed. by Nicholaus Saul, Jahrbuch des freien deutschen Hochstifts 199…
   Ludwig Achim von Arnim, Isabella von Ägypten,
   Caroline von Wolzogen, Die Zigeuner,
   see for detailed data ….


Gypsy figure is initiated, we are presented with the 1782 court case concerning
allegations of cannibalism voiced against a group of Sinti. In spite of the allegedly
devoured bodies later being found alive, the accused Sinti were extensively tortured,
sentenced on the grounds of their forced admittance to the crime and 41 of the death
sentences were carried out.14 This rift between fictional and "factual" discourses is

It is all the more striking, then, that literary manifestations of the so-called Gypsy motif is
characterised by a mainly positive depiction of Gypsies. As numerous studies on the
motif structure of Gypsy representations have shown,15 we are mostly dealing with
beautiful and virtuous, young women, often counterpositioned with a hag-like old
woman, usually the grandmother or foster parent of the beautiful Gypsy girl. However, I
wish to illustrate how the narrative mediation of the representation of Gypsies indicate a
more complex relevance for the early 19th century writer which goes beyond the exotic
image that is the female Gypsy.

The narrative discourse of the Gypsy oscillates significantly between both a tendency to
exert control over the image, and the image and fictional character to liberate themselves
from this discourse. To start with, we encounter a purely functionalised Gypsy character
in Schiller's Die Jungfrau von Orleans. The Gypsy episode is narrated within the play
and thus distanced from the dramatic world. The Gypsy woman takes on a solely
imaginary position, her action is a pure sign which Johanna interpreted and translated into
action. Thus, a mythical character of the Gypsy figure is established. This mythical
character is, of course, closely mirrored in Kleist's use of the same scenario. Again, it is

   See for a detailed account of this case Wim Willems, In Search of the True Gypsy: Gypsies as Object of
Study during the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Nazism, London, Portland: Frank Cass 1997, p. 25ff.
   see for instance: Rajko Djuric, Roma und Sinti im Spiegel der deutschen Literatur; ein Essay, Mit einem
Vorwort und Einleitungskapitel von Joachim S. Hohmann, Frankfurt/M.: Lang, 1995, Studien zur
Tsiganologie und Folkloristik 13; Hans-Dieter Niemandt, Die Zigeunerin in den romanischen Literaturen
(Phil. Diss.1954), Frankfurt-M: Lang, 1992, Studien zur Tsiganologie und Folkloristik 6, Heidi Berger, Das
Zigeunerbild in der deutschen Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts, unpublished Diss, Waterloo/Ontario: 1972;
Wilhelm Ebhardt, Die Zigeuner in der hochdeutschen Literatur bis zu Goethes Götz von Berlichingen,.-
Erlangen: Buchdruckerei des "Werraboten": Otto Fischer, 1928; Wilhelm Solms, (ed.), Zigeunerbilder in
der deutschsprachigen Literatur, Heidelberg: 1995 and Anita Awosusi (ed.). Zigeunerbilder in der Kinder-
und Jugendliteratur, Heidelberg: Wunderhorn, 2000.


an old fortune-telling Gypsy who equips the protagonist and title character of the novella
Michael Kohlhaas with behavioural options. The setting is again that of a market scene.
The Gypsy appears from and disappears into the anonymous mass of the crowd,
symbolically representing the voice of the common people at the same time as the voice
of Kohlhaas' recently deceased wife Lisbeth and thus a transcendental message. Diverting
from the intertextual references to Schiller, the symbol of power and empowerment is no
longer the material helmet, but the material and symbolic word on a scrap of paper. The
word, though read by Kohlhaas in the hour of his death, is never interpreted or revealed
to either reader, narrator, or any other of the fictional characters. The secret bond remains
that between Kohlhaas and the Gypsy, both of them revolt against the written word of
authority as constituted by the chronicle and the discourse of authorities it resembles. The
Gypsy, a representative of the common people from which she emerges into our and
Kohlhaas' visual field, provides the power over the symbolic contents of the written word
which allows Kohlhaas the revolt and revenge for his unjust treatment. This is to be read
in political terms as a consideration of the just nature of a potential revolt against the
occupying Napoleonic forces by the German people. Here, the revolt is symbolic and
above all textual, i.e. literary, while it places the writer in the political arena of
nationalism and representative for the people who lack a voice. Kohlhaas asks the
question whether there can be a situation where political revolt, albeit, literary revolt, is

This tentative revolt enabled by the exchange of a material symbol from Gypsy figure to
protagonist is also present in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, where the character Mignon's
revolt is eventually controlled by the narrative process. Her perception through the
subjective eyes of the protagonist Wilhelm Meister place her as an essentially strange,
androgynous,    deformed      character.     Her     refusal    against    growth      and   sexual
unambiguousness contrasts fundamentally with Wilhelm Meister's developmental path.
At the same time, she is his mirror image through which he reflects upon his own
personality and identity. A primordial figure, she is essentially beyond structuring


attempts as the character of her music-making demonstrates.16 Her intuitive art and form
of expression is unprecedented and genial yet depends on the transmission through a
form giving agent.17 As her singing is transcribed by Wilhelm, it loses a considerable part
of its originality. Her character is transmitted in a similar way by the narrative until the
distance between the experience of Mignon becomes more and more pronounced. In the
end, Mignon is transformed into an ideal artefact, embalmed yet dead, while Wilhelm
feels strangely liberated and finally apt for the world. His development is thus achieved
through the castrating act of art directed against the essentially erotic and pre-civilised
figure of Mignon – to speak in Nietzsche’s terms, the Apollinic principle represented by
the formed character of Wilhelm successfully subjugates the Dionysian principle enacted
by Mignon.

Mignon, the embodiment of pure, primordial poetry, is resurrected by the Romantics and
her threat of and call for revolt is finally heard in Brentano's "Die mehreren Wehmüller".
Intertextually linking his Gypsy characters of Mitidika and Mihaly with Mignon by a
similarity in names (both Mitidika and Mignon mean "little one"18), their androgynous
nature and their musicality, Mignon is reassessed and re-interpreted in the form of the
two Gypsies of his novella. This time, it is the Gypsy characters who hold the narrative
threads together and eventually achieve to reunite all that belongs together, including
themselves, through the narrative act of storytelling in combination with the bodily and
sensual art of music and dance, in the attempt even establishing peace: “und Frieden ward
geschaffen”.19 But more than resolving uncertain identities and confusion caused by
artificial boundaries, Brentano employs the Gypsy character in the context of the

   “Aber die Originalität der Wendungen konnte er nur von ferne nachahmen. Die kindliche Unschuld des
Ausdrucks verschwand, indem die gebrochene Sprache übereinstimmend und das Unzusammenhängende
verbunden ward“ (WML, 152).
   See Hellmuth Ammerlahn (1981), "Puppe - Tänzer - Dämon - Genius - Engel: Naturkind, Poesiekind und
Kunstwerdung bei Goethe". In The German Quarterly, 1981, 54:1, 19-32, here p. 12 who argues that
Mignon’s poetry is formless and needs the mediation of the talented poet in order to be understood. Oskar
Seidlin, „Zur Mignon Ballade“, Euphorion, 45, 1950, 83-99, maintains along a slightly different line that
Mignon represents pure poetry. By extension this would mean that the form giving process through the poet
alientates the reader from a true experience of her originality.
   See Adolf Heltmann, "Rumänische Verse in Klemens Brentanos Novelle "Die mehreren Wehmüller oder
ungarischen Nationalgesichter": Ein quellengeschichtlicher und ästhetischer Beitrag" in
Korrespondenzblatt des Vereins für siebenbürgische Landeskunde, 1926, 49, p. 83.
   Quote from text here.


nationalist discourse, thus reiterating Kleist's argument. In this function, the two Gypsy
characters display a link to oral and folkloric art forms, namely storytelling and music.
Through the enactment of these art forms they resolve uncertainties of identity, thus
deciphering the symbols that have become uncertain in their meaning. They also
accomplish to join that which belongs together, be it couples or families, or nationalities.
The number of the “Nationalgesichter”, 37, hints at the divided nature of the German
conglomerate of states so that the geographical borders of the novella, induced by a
threatening but non-existent disease, are to be interpreted as the ill-natured state of the
German nation, split into 37 states by frontiers that divide rather than join. The separating
border turns out to be the disease, rather than protect from it. The stateless and yet
international Gypsy figure in the most literal sense of the word can be at home
everywhere and, at the same time, nowhere and is thus not constrained by existing
borders. The ability to transcend borders which act on other characters as limitations of
their scope of action offers a utopian approach in relation to existing margins and

In Arnim's Isabella von Ägypten we are finally presented with the transcendence of
mortal existence of Isabella’s realm, or, pure utopian poetry; a transcendence mirrored in
narrative terms. The Gypsy character of Isabella is here imaged as the unsuspecting
leader of her people whose task it is to lead her people back to their country of origin. As
Brentano, Arnim borrows heavily from Grellmann. Thus we find the names of Isabella
and her father, the Gypsy prince Michael, in his study, as well as descriptions of outer
appearance and lifestyle. Mainly, however, Arnim utilises the myth of the penitential
pilgrimage, exposed for its fictitiousness by Grellmann, in order to provide a reading in
terms of salvific history in the novella. Isabella is thus transformed into a messianic, or
Moses-like, character who leads her people from suffering on foreign soils to the
promised land. Counterpositioned with her is her lover and father of her son, the future
King Charles V, who is guided by principles of material interest rather than the well-
being of his people, which, as the narrative argues, results in his subsequent problematic
reign and unhappiness for the common people. A parallel to contemporary times is easily
drawn. Just like Brentano criticises the mass-produced paintings fabricated by Wehmüller


and Froschauer as a capitalist form of art devoid of intuition, individuality and meaning,20
so does Arnim criticise an increasingly materialistic society. While the narrator facilitates
the recipient’s identification with Isabella who is guided by values of altruism and vision,
the narrator induces antipathetic portrayals of such characters for whom the accumulation
of material goods and monetary wealth is more important than spirituality. Such
characters, as the ever treasure hunting Bärenhäuter (bearskin) and the Alraun
(mandrake) Cornelius as well as the future King Charles V betray their own for their
individual benefit and are punished by themselves falling victim to their own fictive
creations. However, this interpretation is complicated by the fact that Cornelius and the
Bärenhäuter are created and brought to life by Isabella and her grandmother through
enacting folk wisdom (magic and storytelling) in order to produce, in turn, beings that
threaten the existence and fulfilment of Isabella’s providence (Golem Bella). If we add
Isabella's creativity to the magical incantation and bringing to life of creatures who she
later fails to control, it becomes apparent that she is, like her sister Mitidika, an artist
figure, even if an essentially problematic one. Again, it is argued that poetry needs to
guide the running of a successful civitas and Gypsy characters are the thankful agent and
carrier of symbolic meaning, even though this may not guarantee unproblematic
implementation of artistic ideas.

The limitations of this liberating narrative discourse are, however, situated in the socio-
historical reality of Romanies due to their exclusion in real terms. The liberation and
subversion always points back to the originator of the discourse, the critical artist. The
Gypsy character offers a potential for critical discourse and poetic utopia only for its
originator while the Gypsy herself remains objectified as the symbolic space and body for
such subversive intentions. This objectification is achieved by use of narrative,
perspectivic and motivic structure.

In text structural terms, the marginal and other as constituted by the Gypsy characters in
the various texts is kept at a formal distance through the use of narrative agency and

  “der falsche Wehmüller sei wohl nur eine Strafe Gottes für den echten Wehmüller, weil dieser alle
Ungarn über einen Leisten male; so gäbe es jetzt auch mehrere Wehmüller über einen Leisten“ ("MW",


perspectivic structure. As a consequence, Gypsy characters are essentially objects of the
narrative discourse and heterodiegetically mediated. This is achieved throughout by a
personal difference between the fictional narrator on the one hand and the fictional
character of the Gypsy on the other. The Gypsy is narrated by distinct and authoritative,
and in most instances reliable and omniscient narrators. An exception to this is Kleist’s
Michael Kohlhaas, where the novella is equipped with an unreliable narrator. His
unreliability is demonstrated specifically in the Gypsy episode of the story indicating that
the Gypsy plays a crucial role in the problematisation of the narrative discourse as such
and, with it, the belief in authoritative discourses in general. This narrative structure
places the Gypsy character firmly in the position of a narrated object. Only at temporally
limited and hierarchically inferior instances is the Gypsy character given the opportunity
to assert their subject character by assuming the role of a narrator. Such instances are
characterised by their rare occurrence in only some of the texts as well as their embedded
narrative context, which indicates their inferior nature in relation to the authoritative and
hierarchically superior frame narrative. Examples for these techniques can be found in
Isabella von Ägypten, where Braka, Isabella’s grandmother, narrates the folk tale of the
Bärenhäuter in an interior narrative, thus bringing the narrated object to life – a sign of
the belief in the incantational power of the orally narrated word.

As far as perspectivic structure is concerned, the tendency in most texts is towards
disallowing the focalisation of the fictional world through the body of the Gypsy
characters. This furthers the distancing process already initiated through the
heterodiegetic narrative structure. By refusing the recipient of the narrative discourse to
assume the perspective of a Gypsy character, the recipient, alongside the narrator, is
invited to objectify the fictional Gypsy character. This impedes the interpretation and
understanding of the Gypsy character as a subject and possible identificatory object. The
recipient thus assumes the perspective of focalising agents other than the Gypsy



Finally, the Gypsy character is counterpositioned in text structural terms with other
characters to whom marginality is attributed. The nature of this counterpositioning
process determines to a great extent the reception of the Gypsy character by the recipient.
We can distinguish three main types of such relations of contrast and correspondence,
which can materialise in isolation or in combination: Firstly, Gypsy characters may be
counterpositioned with other, minor, that is quantitatively marginal, Gypsy characters
displaying a degree of difference. Thus, we encounter various instances in which the
young female Gypsy character is counterpositioned with an old and unattractive Gypsy
character, such as in “Die mehreren Wehmüller” and Isabella von Ägypten Secondly,
Gypsy characters may be counterpositioned with a more positively evaluated, also
marginal character, usually in a complex combination of corresponding and contrasting
characteristics which both link the two characters and set them apart. This is the case in
Michael Kohlhaas with reference to the relation between the Gypsy woman and
Kohlhaas’ deceased wife. Thirdly, Gypsy characters may be counterpositioned with
another marginal character who is attributed negative traits, a practice which leads to the
consequent re-evaluation of the Gypsy character and her idealisation. The chosen
preference for this last option is the character of the male Jew. This is particularly striking
both as this option is the preferred pattern in texts of the Romantic authors and in light of
the similarities in negative myths and stereotyping of the contemporary image of the Jew
and the Gypsy. Both are associated with an ethnic group in Diaspora and on a perceived
eternal migration, with oriental origins. Additionally, similar negative attributes are
projected on both groups, such as material robbery of the population, the poisoning of
fountains etc. In the Romantic texts however, and a prime example in this context is
Arnim's Isabella von Ägypten, the idealisation of the Gypsy character is one side of the
same coin as the demonisation of the Jewish character. Thus, Bella's doppelgaenger
Golem Bella has come to life due to a Jewish myth, generated by a Jew and furnished
with a rude and selfish nature lacking of Isabella’s altruistic and visionary characteristics.
With the doubling of Bella, Bella is elevated to a pedestal, reminiscent of an ideal of
femininity that evoke both aspects of the Virgin Mary, namely caring motherhood and
innocent virginity, while Golem Bella represents the materialistically-minded petty
bourgeoisie that has lost any idealistic value system. It takes an idealised, feminine Bella


to lead a people into the safe haven of a perfect society and nation, while the
materialistically oriented Golem Bella, as well as the future King Charles V succumb to
the temptations of money and lose sight of the vision, thus endangering the well being of
their people which in turn leads to discontent, revolt, chaos and bloodshed.21

Representations of Gypsies are intrinsically linked to ideas of nationhood, a viable
society and a critique of the status quo. This subversive potential is directed against the
increasingly materialistic state, as well as being a protest against French occupation and
lack of national unity due to a missing link of solidarity and common vision. However,
the selection of attributes that lead to the idealisation of the young Gypsy woman does
not have a repercussion for their treatment in the extra-fictional world, as the diverging
discourse of ethnographic and criminological texts demonstrate. Rather, Gypsy characters
are functionalised within the texts for a utopian vision of ideal statehood by drawing on
their association with freedom from norms and conventions and their intrinsic perceived
otherness which allows them to be used as a symbol for an alternative nationhood. Their
otherness may be based on notions of androgyny as suggested in Grellmann's study, and
subsequently elaborated by Brentano in particular. Their association with magic positions
them in a potential transcendental field as witnessed in Michael Kohlhaas, Die Jungfrau
von Orleans, Isabella von Ägypten and "Die Mehreren Wehmüller". The outcome
remains the same: the Gypsy figure is idealised and thus removed from her real
counterpart, the sign becomes independent from its referent and can be assigned new
meanings. This process of assigning new and throughout positive meanings is mirrored
by a similar, but reverted process of demonisation, which takes as its victims old female
gypsies or the fictional Jewish character. Idealisation is thus never innocent, neither for
the idealised nor the demonised character.

  See Oesterle/Oesterle (1996:107): "in der Erzählung … [erhalten] zwei ethnische Minderheiten, die
Zigeuner und die Juden, offen und verdeckt verschiedene, z. T. alternative Aufgaben und Funktionen
zugesprochen. In ihrem Tun und Lassen werden alternative Weltentwürfe, Natürlichkeit und Künstlichkeit,
Legende und Historie, Poesie und Prosa, Macht des Poetischen und Macht des Geldes voneinander
abgegrenzt und doch zugleich als aufeinander verwiesen dargestellt. "


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