Out of the Ashes: A New Look at Germany's Postwar Reconstruction
Germany's rebirth following the annihilation of World War II is nothing short of a miracle. But the country's reconstruction was not without controversy and it resulted in cities filled with modernist buildings which have not aged well. Now, a new wave of construction is underway coupled with a new desire to rebuild the old.
It was a curious procession that wound its way up the Fockeberg in the eastern German city of Leipzig in May. The participants pushed strange wheeled contraptions up the 153 meter (500 foot) hill, climbed into them and shot back down again. The event was the 19th Prix de Tacot, an annual soap-box derby that sees daredevil teams race weird and wonderful vehicles to the delight of thousands of spectators. The race has several events and a number of special prizes, including the "'Long Live Yuri Gagarin' Special Award," which this year went to a team calling itself "Stag Party." A rolling beer-garden umbrella was among the sights.
Perhaps more interesting, however, is the venue where the Prix de Tacot takes place. The Fockeberg wasn't created by glacial erosion or tectonic movements. Rather, the hill was created entirely from rubble leftover after the bombing of Leipzig during World War II. It is a soap-box derby on the ruins of the Third Reich.
There are similar man-made hillocks in many other German cities. Mönchengladbach, for example, has the Rheydter Höhe. Its counterpart in Frankfurt is dubbed "Monte Scherbelino" (a faux-Italian pun meaning "Shard Mountain"). And Stuttgart's Grüner Heiner is particularly popular among model airplane enthusiasts.
The residents of Berlin lovingly named the piled-up remains of their destroyed houses, factories and churches "Monte Klamotte" ("rag mountains"). One of them, the Teufelsberg ("Devil's Mountain"), is the second-highest point in the German capital, at almost 115 meters (380 feet) above sea level. During the Cold War, the US military stationed gigantic listening devices on the hill to pick up radio and other transmissions from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Many years on, mountain bikers, para-gliders and snowboarders have claimed the hill as their own. The German Alpine Association has even set up a climbing wall there.
From Massive Losses to New Beginnings
During World War II, carpet-bombing by Allied forces leveled up to 80 percent of the historic buildings in Germany's main cities in an unprecedented wave of destruction prompted by the no less unprecedented barbarity of the Nazis. In a seemingly endless catalogue of annihilation, Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Hamburg, Kiel, Lübeck, Münster, Munich, Frankfurt, Würzburg, Mainz, Nuremberg, Xanten, Worms, Brunswick, Hanover, Freiburg and Dresden were all devastated.
Never before had so much been lost -- and, yet, never before were there so many new beginnings. Never before had an entire country been rebuilt. Indeed, the lion's share of buildings standing in Germany today was erected after 1948.
In West Germany alone, some 400 million cubic meters (14 billion cubic feet) of rubble was piled up after the war -- enough to build a wall two meters thick and seven meters high all the way around the western half of the divided country. From an architectural and urban-planning point of view, Germany's phoenix-like resurrection from the inferno resembled a continuation of the wartime destruction by other means: Another 30 percent of the country's historic buildings were simply wiped off the map to make way for the new.
This reconstruction phase lasted well into the 1980s -- before the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification kicked off yet another wave of building. And even today, the process of constant self-renewal is far from being completed. Indeed, 65 years after the Germans crawled out from under their ruined houses, and 20 years after the country's successful reunification, there is still much talk of reconstruction, that which has already been built is being reappraised and even the very idea of what a city should be is up for discussion.
A New Approach to Urban Planning
The aim is to undo past mistakes made due to urgency and an obsession with modernization. A new aesthetic need is thrusting aside the principle of pure functionality that was spawned by necessity. And demographic change -- including an aging population, the flow of immigrants and thinning population densities in certain regions of eastern Germany -- calls for a new approach to urban planning.
Urban planners are rethinking their ideas, and the radicalism of the early postwar era is being replaced by cautious renovation and, in some cases, rebuilding. A third phase of Germany's renaissance is gathering steam and, paradoxically, it is characterized by a growing nostalgia and yearning for history, tradition, focal points and urban centers that provide orientation and a sense of identity within the metropolitan morass. Historical old cities are more popular than ever.
It is perhaps not difficult to understand why. The architecture critic Wolfgang Pehnt posits that, if the rate of change is too great, the urge for the comforts of the past is all the greater. In addition, much of what was built during that initial, chaotic recovery phase after 1945 -- when the most important goal was just to clear all the rubble away and give people a roof over their heads -- was not completely successful from an architectural and city planning point of view. Things had to be done quickly, which rendered them more improvised than thought-out -- the desperate demand made mistakes easy to disregard.
Sixteen million apartments existed before the war. By 1945, 2.5 million had been utterly destroyed, and another 4 million were damaged to the point of uselessness.
Temporary accommodations were erected everywhere to try to mitigate the worst of the homelessness. Even so, many opted to camp out in their ruined homes for months. The influx of millions of refugees, those expelled from parts of Poland and the Czech Republic, and the displaced augmented the misery.
Forward to the Past
But how to quickly build the urgently needed housing? Should destroyed houses and prestigious buildings be rebuilt to look just like they were and in the same location? Or, since everything was destroyed anyway, should the cities take advantage of the opportunity to make a fresh start -- by, for example, broadening the narrow, winding alleys of historical city centers to make them more car-friendly or by providing inhabitants with modern housing surrounded by greenery?
Absurd ideas were debated, such as the proposal to just abandon the ruins and rebuild the cities nearby. But not everything was destroyed. Under the rubble, there were still semi-intact electrical systems and sewage, water and gas pipelines. In the end, Munich didn't migrate to the shores of Lake Starnberg, and Hanover is still on the Leine River.
What's more, most people wanted their old houses back. Across Germany, they formed associations to lobby for the preservation of their old towns -- and urban planners found themselves embroiled in a bitter debate over the right course of action. There weren't, after all, only functional and aesthetic aspects to consider, but also -- and perhaps more importantly -- the paradigm that reconstruction was to communicate.
Those in favor of a new beginning warned that one-to-one reconstruction would be tantamount to ignoring that the war had ever happened. But those who advocated historical faithfulness, on the other hand, argued that it would be downright ahistorical or even a type of repression to wipe out the traces of the past, which consisted of so much more than the 12 disastrous years of Nazi rule.
- Part 1: A New Look at Germany's Postwar Reconstruction
- Part 2: The Intellectual Divide
- Part 3: The Spiritual Failure of Suburban Developments
- Part 4: 'Better People through Better Construction'
- Part 5: The Berlin Model
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