Out of the Ashes A New Look at Germany's Postwar Reconstruction
Part 2: The Intellectual Divide
The 1947 dispute over the rebuilding of the birthplace of the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Frankfurt is a classic example of the ideologically charged postwar rhetoric -- and one that typifies Germany's difficult relationship to its largely destroyed historical architecture.
The row struck at the heart of culture-loving Germany, the country that coined the phrase Weltliteratur. Fires started by the Allied bombing of Frankfurt gutted the house Goethe was born in -- a mid-18th-century, three-story, half-timbered structure -- and it collapsed a few months later. The building had served as a Goethe museum since the 19th century; all of its historically valuable contents had been removed prior to its devastation.
In 1947, two years before the 200th anniversary of Goethe's birth, Ernst Butler, a literary scholar who was also the museum's curator, lobbied Germany's intellectual elite to lend their voices to calls to rebuild the museum.
Hermann Hesse, who had received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946, wrote: "Should it be rebuilt? I must answer that with a wholehearted yes." Agreeing with Hesse were poet Hans Carossa, novelist Ernst Robert Curtius, physicist Max Planck, philosopher Karl Jaspers and many other German intellectual celebrities.
'Facsimiles Can Never Replace an Original'
But the German Work Federation, an influential alliance of artists, architects and entrepreneurs, conducted its own straw poll among a group of German intellectuals who subscribed to the tenets of modernism. Not surprisingly, they opposed reconstruction. "Facsimiles of precious relics can never replace an original," said art historian Richard Hamann, whose stance is espoused by hard-line curators even to this day.
The prominent critic Walter Dirks, by contrast, adopted a more argumentative point of view. "If the land of thinkers and poets -- and, with it, the rest of Europe -- hadn't turned away from Goethe's spirit of moderation and humanity, it wouldn't have embarked upon this war or provoked the destruction of this house," Dirks wrote in the magazine Frankfurter Hefte. "This demise is correct, which is why it should be accepted."
In the end, Hesse and his supporters finally got their way, and the rebuilding of Goethe's birthplace was completed in 1951. It did not, however, mark a seminal moment in post-war Germany. Although there were a few exceptions -- such as in Freiburg, Freudenstadt and Münster (where the baroque gable-roofed houses on Prinzipalmarkt were rebuilt in simplified form shortly after the end of the war) -- the modernizers generally held sway.
The Nazi Pedigree of 'Urban Landscapes'
It was a time of strange, powerful coalitions. Even before the Nazis came to power in 1933, many architects and urban planners had developed a weakness for modernism. Now, suddenly, they found themselves in the same camp as developers who thought the country needed a radical break from the past, both morally and politically. Paradoxically, they were joined by a whole host of architects who had had close links to the Nazi dictatorship.
These architects now pulled out plans they had been tinkering with since early 1943, when Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect, established a working group tasked with drawing up plans for rebuilding Germany's cities once the war was over. All the famous names were involved.
Plans to redesign the country had been hatched even earlier. Already in 1940, Hitler had forged his visions for reshaping Germany's cities.
Konstanty Gutschow, an architect based in Hamburg, immediately set to work. Gutschow dreamt of the "structured and dispersed urban landscape" favored by Nazi planners in the hope that it would make Germany's cities less susceptible to bomb damage. He reasoned that sprawling "urban landscapes" (to use the expression popular among his contemporary urban planners) were harder to attack effectively from the air than densely packed older cities, which could be devastated with a single direct hit. Gutschow also planned to erect monumental structures in Hamburg, including a high-rise administrative building, a parade ground and a meeting hall, "as evidence of Hamburg's international standing."
Operation Gomorrah, the week-long Allied bombing campaign that leveled Hamburg in July 1943, served Gutschow's purposes. "This act of destruction will be a blessing," the architect said of the horrific fate which had befallen Hamburg and its residents. "The Führer's prophesy that the ruined cities will rise again more resplendent than ever applies doubly to Hamburg," he said, adding: "We won't shed any tears for the vast majority of the destroyed buildings."
After the war, Gutschow's involvement with the Nazis prevented him from being eligible for any public contracts. His contacts, however, quickly ensured that he had work. It was the same story elsewhere in Germany, particularly in Düsseldorf. Nazi-era architects helped each other land jobs and projects while keeping them out of the hands of former Nazi opponents.
Free From Historical Ballast
These architects were quick to pretend that they had absolutely anything to do with the bombastic architecture of the Nazis and their megalomaniacal ideology. After the war, Speer's architects hid behind Bauhaus, the modernist style initially developed by Walter Gropius and others before 1933. Because the Nazis had persecuted its followers, being associated with Bauhaus was good for one's career after the war -- and it allowed them to actively promote modernism free from historical ballast.
In West Germany, in particular, new machines and construction techniques transformed the traditionally leisurely pace of urban planning into a hasty, spectacular upheaval. The speed of change alone was impressive. Financially, it was only possible because the West needed the fledgling West Germany to be a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Money poured into the country via the Marshall Plan and other conduits.
New roads, schools, hospitals and housing developments sprouted up all over West Germany. By the 1960s, an average of 570,000 apartments were being built annually -- the record was 714,000, in 1973. Between 50,000 and 150,000 single-family homes were likewise constructed each year. In all, no fewer than 5.3 million new apartments were built in West Germany in the first 15 years after the war. In communist East Germany, builders started churning out residential units at a rate of 100,000 a year beginning in 1974.
It was a good time for architects, urban planners, entrepreneurs and communist building collectives. The task seemed endless and money was everywhere. The outcome, however, was less than impressive -- mass produced buildings that compare poorly with the prewar buildings which they replaced.