Germans Cling to Heritage in Rebuilding Cities
More than four decades after the bombing and shelling of German cities in World War II, the painstaking work of restoration is still going on in dozens of communities.
Churches are being carefully rebuilt. Public squares surrounded by once-shattered buildings are coming back to life, and lovely old half-timbered houses are being put back together.
The result is that almost every West German community, large and small, has a restored center that is drawing in townspeople and tourists alike.
West German towns and cities have managed to avoid the excesses of mindless rebuilding that has taken place elsewhere in Europe. In many places, the wreckage was simply bulldozed away, and what has gone up in its place has little to do with the past.
But here in this Rhineland city, for example, they have reconstructed much of the endearing Old Town along the river, in the shadow of the great Gothic cathedral. The cathedral took 600 years to complete and was severely damaged in the war.
Old houses have been rebuilt and freshly painted. The area around the church and square of Gross St. Martin forms a harmonious complex of apartments, shops and pubs that has revitalized the city center.
The cathedral, which was started in the 13th Century, is being refurbished by stone workers and stained-glass artisans. At night its lighted twin towers can be seen for miles.
Smaller Romanesque churches nearby, shattered in the war, have been slowly but beautifully reconstructed, except for St. Alban. Its shell has been left untouched, grim testimony to the wanton destruction of war.
Like other cities, Cologne has its share of postwar architectural eyesores. But these seem to have receded into the background, upstaged by the restored Old Town.
“In a way, we were lucky after the war because we were so poor,” Dr. Joerg Schulze, an official in the Rhineland Preservation Office, told a visitor in the course of a walking tour of the Old Town. “We didn’t have the money to tear down all the damaged structures and build new ones. Anyway, housing for the homeless and dispossessed was the first priority.
“By the time we got around to dealing with the inner city, ideas had changed about how the center should look. The modernism of the 1950s was no longer thought to be so wonderful.”
Thus Cologne and other West German cities were spared the worst of postwar modernism that has obliterated the traditional centers of cities in England, for example. Many of England’s war-torn cities have been turned into concrete forests of unattractive high-rise buildings, unsightly parking garages, thundering expressways and civic buildings constructed in the barren style that has come to be known as “New Brutalism.”
According to Schulze, the cities of Muenster and Freiburg, which were heavily damaged, were the first to fend off efforts to bulldoze and rebuild. They chose instead to restore their historic buildings to the greatest degree possible.
As a consequence, their centers are now regarded as among West Germany’s handsomest.
1971 Law Cited
West Germany’s success in restoring its city centers can be attributed in part to a law enacted in 1971 that provides for subsidies and tax advantages to property owners willing to rebuild.
And the postwar concern for historical beauty, once people were properly housed, helps to explain how West Germany has largely managed to avoid the “Brave New World” approach of cold-blooded modernism that has turned out to be so unappealing to many urban dwellers.