Nuremberg Reclaims the Ruins of a Nazi Past
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of World War II magazine.
From the heights of Nuremberg Castle, which perches on the north side of the city that shares its name, there’s a clear view over a thousand years of German history. The half-timbered walls of artist Albrecht Dürer’s house stand at eye level before a mosaic of gabled roofs, punctuated by Gothic spires, which descends gently to the plain below. The scene is quintessentially German—but a magnificent recreation. By the end of World War II the medieval city, once the finest in Europe, had been reduced to smoldering rubble by Allied bombs dropped on the most symbolic of German targets.
There are two Nurembergs. One is the intellectual and industrial landmark where Martin Behaim constructed the first terrestrial globe, Dürer mapped the stars, and Peter Henlein created the pocket watch. The other is the Nazi meeting place that gave its name to the bigoted laws that opened the way to the Holocaust, and where the crimes committed by Germany’s top officials were exposed to the world.
Ironically, Nuremberg’s first identity led directly to its second: to Hitler, the city epitomized Germany’s former greatness and showed the potential for what it could become again. Strong support from the city’s Nazi mayor and Julius Streicher, owner of the viciously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, and a rail network to the rest of the country made it the ideal location for Nazi Party congresses.
The 1927 Nuremberg Party Congress attracted more than 100,000 people; the next, in 1929, tens of thousands more. Columns of Brown Shirts and Hitler Youth marched down streets festooned with Nazi bunting to Hauptmarkt Square (Central Square), where they cheered their oaths of allegiance to Hitler.
But the führer demanded a grander stage. He commissioned his personal architect, Albert Speer, to build a vast ceremonial complex in Luitpoldhain, a park southeast of central Nuremberg, before the 1934 rally. Expense was not a consideration. Everything on the four-square-mile site was to evoke the power of Hitler, the Nazi Party, and Germany.
You sense none of this today; the rally grounds at Luitpoldhain are home to a strange mix of ruins, memorials, and reappropriated buildings. The Great Road, a granite parade road just over a mile long, runs north to south alongside them. At the north end of the road is the Hall of Honor, a 1929 memorial to the dead of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. It is now used to honor both the victims of the Nazis and those who fought in both world wars. The stone temple overlooks an artificial hill covering the ruins of a Nazi convention center that was flattened by Allied bombs.
Walk further south, and on the shores of Dutzendeich Lake you’ll find Nuremberg’s largest Nazi building, the Congress Hall. A massive building meant to recall the Colosseum, it is an unfinished, roofless shell. Carved into its north wing is the Documentation Center, a museum that offers the only view of the hall’s unfinished interior. Another part of the building is used by the Nuremberg Philharmonic Orchestra to perform summer concerts.
The Zeppelin Field and Tribune are on the lake’s opposite shore. This is where Hitler, flanked by the Tribune’s neoclassical columns, addressed some 400,000 supporters in 1934 while more than 100 searchlights projected a cathedral of light around the field. Today the columns of the Tribune have been demolished and, stripped of spectacle, the concrete building seems fittingly inconsequential.
A trickle of tourists take their turn on Hitler’s podium. “I’m not going to raise my right arm,” a young Brit joked to his companions as they photographed him from below. Then he lingered, quietly gazing across the racetrack and soccer practice grounds that are now Zeppelin Field. When I stand in that space, just large enough for one man to announce the policies that led to the deaths of millions, I am surprised by how ordinary the view is.
In fact, the most striking thing about the rally grounds is how the Nazi architecture has been reabsorbed into the 21st-century landscape: life goes on, even amid these painful reminders of Nuremberg’s Nazi past. Outside the Congress Hall, a traditional German fun fair is in full swing. The austere curve of the building looms over a candy-striped tent and hand-painted signs of Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty advertising hot dogs. It’s a strange juxtaposition. Stranger still is the transformer station that powered the searchlights at the 1934 rally: it’s now a Burger King, though the roughly chiseled outline of a Nazi eagle remains on the end wall.
Just west of the rally grounds, on Frankenstrasse, a solemn building of red brick and stone also has Nazi roots. Originally known as the SS Kaserne (barracks), it housed the SS Signals School during the war, and its design was supervised by Heinrich Himmler himself. When the U.S. Army occupied the building in 1945 it became Merrell Barracks, headquarters of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. Today it has been reincarnated as the German Ministry for Refugees. An annex, the Z-Bau, remains magnificently unrenovated. It is now occupied by artists’ studios and punk clubs, but the essence of Himmler’s austere interior remains.
I get lost in the winding streets west of Old Town, and find one of the city’s hochbunkers (aboveground air shelters) in the hospital complex on Rieterstrasse. As a major producer of U-boat and plane engines, Nuremberg was an important bombing target, though you can find these types of shelters all over Germany. This one is about the size of a small apartment block, and is now girded with hospital ducting. With its five-feet-thick concrete walls, it is nearly impossible to safely demolish—and may become one of the few Third Reich buildings to actually last a thousand years.
Much of Nuremberg was reduced to rubble during a massive bombing raid on January 2, 1945. There was not much of a view when the U.S. Seventh Army Command occupied Nuremberg Castle on April 14, 1945. On Fürtherstrasse, about two miles from the Old Town, the elegant gabled façades of the Palace of Justice and its adjoining prison remained relatively unscathed by the bombing. This, along with Nuremberg’s placement in the American zone, contributed to its selection as the site of the most famous war crimes trials in history. Here, in the most German of cities, an Allied military tribunal would try Hitler’s top lieutenants.
Courtroom 600, where the hearings took place, is down a small side street. Now wrapped in scaffolding and closed for renovation, it will reopen as a memorial in late 2010. Nuremberg local Julius Streicher, whose behavior was so repugnant that it alienated even his fellow condemned Nazis, was sentenced to death here for his crimes against humanity.
Behind the courtrooms, a shady footpath follows the banks of the gentle Pegnitz River into the Old Town. It’s lunchtime and the streets are redolent with Nuremberg’s famous sausages: finger-sized, on a bed of sauerkraut, they are best washed down with Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen, a light wheat and yeast beer. As the waitress pours the beer into my glass, I notice that the centuries-old sandstone wall beside my table has been entirely reconstructed. It is almost too straight and true. Though it took 40 years, Old Town Nuremberg—the old cultural and industrial heart of Germany—has been rebuilt. It will take a few centuries before these recreated buildings again acquire the patina of age, but they will long outlast the ruins of Hitler’s Reich.
When You Go
International travelers will fly into Nuremberg International Airport, a short metro train ride from the city center. High-speed Intercity Express (ICE) trains— the best way to travel within Germany—arrive at Nuremberg’s Hauptbahnhof, or Central Station. Outside the Old Town, metro trains—the S-Bahn and U-Bahn—are the most reliable ways to travel.
Where to Stay and Eat
Le Méridien Grand Hotel Nuremberg, a block from the Central Station at Bahnhofstrasse 1–3, is considered one of Nuremberg’s best (lemeridien.com). The popular Ibis chain operates several modest and reasonably priced hotels in or adjacent to the Old Town (ibishotel.com). The Old Town is replete with al fresco restaurants: Bratwurst Röslein at Rathausplatz 6 serves excellent regional food (bratwurst-roeslein.de), while the tiny Café Bar Wanderer boasts friendly service and a commanding view of Albrecht Dürer Square (Beim Tiergärtnertor 2–6; cafe-wanderer.de). Along the Pegnitz River, it’s hard to beat the beer garden at tranquil O’Shea’s Irish Pub (Wespennest 6; osheas.de).
What Else to See
Nuremberg’s famous annual Christmas market runs from the end of November through Christmas Eve. Advance hotel reservations are essential.