What is regained and what is lost when a city is reconstructed in the wake of its destruction by aerial bombing?
Before the Second World War, Hildesheim was one of Germany’s oldest and most beautifully preserved historic cities. Modestly sized, with a population of 60,000 inhabitants in the 1920s, it was a medieval architectural gem, filled with fine examples of German Renaissance, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. These included the early-Romanesque St Michael’s church, built in the eleventh century, the Gothic city hall, built in the thirteenth century, and a number of medieval timber-framed buildings, including the Butcher’s Guild House (Knochenhauer Amtshaus), built in 1529, and arguably the finest example of its kind in Germany.1
On 22 March 1945, Britain’s Royal Air Force razed the centre of Hildesheim to the ground in just eighteen minutes.2 In my view, we should continue to question whether the bombing of Hildesheim was justifiable at such a late stage in the War. The controversy over the bombing of Dresden, more widely debated because of the substantial casualties inflicted (as many as 25,000 deaths, compared to 1,736 in Hildesheim), took place over a month before the bombing of Hildesheim, between 13 and 15 February 1945.3
The loss of life under such circumstances, whether in wartime or in peacetime, is a horrible tragedy. And yet time acts as a balm that soothes the mourning and remembrance of lives lost, as events pass out of living memory. What remains for us to lament over are the lost masterpieces of art and architecture that perished amidst the bombs. Our mourning for them persists because their traces survive for the ragpickers amongst us to discover amongst the detritus of pre-war history, in written memoirs, works of art, photographs, postcards, and travel souvenirs.
The nature of German reconstruction efforts varied from one town and city to another.4 In some places, the reconstruction effort looked to the future by erecting modern structures in place of the old. Elsewhere, as in Hildesheim, the municipal authorities made concerted efforts to recapture the medieval essence of the pre-war city, as well as to reconstruct as faithfully as possible lost medieval buildings, such as the butchers’ guild house.
But however faithful and well-intentioned such reconstruction programmes may be, there is something that planners and architects cannot revive or resurrect: that intangible, historic essence of the city, a spirit that was the result of the myriad processes that constitute centuries of urban life; of the well- and ill-judged juxtapositions of buildings from different eras, historical accident, the effects that gravity and weathering have upon built structures, the accumulation of a hundred lifetimes’ worth of dust, dirt and decay.
What do I mean by this intangible spirit of the city? In the case of Hildesheim, we can find it in the work of pre-war writers, poets, and artists. A small sample might include the American Robert Shauffler, who admired the city’s winding alleys and wobbly roof lines:
“The Hildesheimers were fond of composing an amusing line of roofs such as the one northeast of St Andrew’s, and of leaving one grand old Gothic house (like Trinity Hospital) to temper the vivacity of a Renaissance neighbourhood like an ancient oak set in a grove of silver birches.5”
Or the ‘poet of the heath’ Herman Löns, who enjoyed the irregular arrangements of the windows and gables of the city’s houses, and marvelled at night at how the moonshine cascaded down the roof of St Anne’s Chapel, covering the ivy-covered buttresses in a silver light:
“Ganz allein muss man dort sein, wenn der Mondschein am Dach der Sankt Annenkapelle herabfließt und den Efeu an den Strebepfeilein versilbert”.6
This spirit can also be seen in the work of the artist Oscar Popp, whose paintings of Hildesheim and its inhabitants captured something of the intimate scale and historic essence of the city’s spaces.
Top image: detail of a leaflet entitled Das alte Hildesheim, showing the façades of the Temple and Wedekind Houses at night.
- Karl Baedeker, Northern Germany as far as the Bavarian and Austrian Frontiers (Leipzig: Karl Baedeker, 1925), 64.
- Jörg Friedrich, The Fire: the Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (Google Books) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 184.
- Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945 (Google Books) (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), 42; Friedrich, The fire, 186.
- The best overview of postwar reconstruction in Germany is: Jeffry M Diefendorf, In the Wake of War: the Reconstruction of German Cities after World War II (Google Books) (Oxford University Press, 1993).
- Robert Schauffler, Romantic Germany (Archive.org) (New York: Century, 1909), 220.
- Herman Löns, Nachgelassene Schriften. Erste Band. Mein niedersächsisches Skizzenbuch (Leipzig: Hesse & Becker, 1928), 202.