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.
Berlin, like most cities in Germany, lay in ruins when World War II came to an end. 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.
The entire country was buried under rubble — more than 400 million cubic meters of it alone in what would become West Germany. Additional damaged buildings had to be demolished, and still others were destroyed to make way for reconstruction. The initial work of reconstruction was done by the Trümmerfrauen, or rubble women. With so many men killed in the war, the Allies relied on women between the ages of 15 and 50 to do the hard work of clean-up.
With such vast destruction, there was a severe shortage of apartments and living space in Germany immediately after the war. Many Germans had to live in emergency camps while others holded up in their largely destroyed homes.
For many modernist city planners, the destruction in Germany was an opportunity to depart from the tight, chaotic inner cities of old in favor of wide boulevards and airy apartment blocks. In both East and West Germany, planners set about creating a radical break from the past. Even during World War II, Nazi planners began envisioning a spacially divided city planning style that would make German cities less susceptible to bomb damage. Modernism also called for a departure from the medieval city centers which had dominated Germany for centuries. Across Germany, buildings went up in a hurry. By the 1960s, 570,000 residential units were being built each year in West Germany. In the 1970s, East Germany too was quickly constructing new apartment blocks. The results were not always pretty. German cityscapes in the former west and the former east are today dominated by high-rise apartment complexes. Many residents pine for the tight-knit neighborhoods that existed prior to the war. City centers too succumbed to modernism. Shopping streets across western Germany are virtually indistinguishable from each other and function took precedence over form.
Adolf Hitler’s favorite architect Albert Speer was tasked with drawing up plans for rebuilding Germany once the war was over. Thousands of architects were involved, generating a modernist view of the new Germany. After the war, many of these same architects help reconstruct Germany, using the same modernist ideas. Hitler favored monumental buildings and bombastic boulevards. His vision never came to fruition, but postwar Germany did incorporate many of the modernist ideas promoted by the Nazis.
After the war, a debate broke out in Germany over whether to rebuild exact copies of old buildings or to radically depart from pre-war Germany. Many felt that exact reproductions were tantamount to acting as if the war had never happen. Others felt that radical modernism ignored centuries of pre-war German history.
Many see Berlin as having been successful in incorporating the old with the new. Still, the German capital has not been free of controversy. The city elected to tear down the former East German capital building and seat of the communist government, the Palace of the Republic, to make way for the reconstruction of the original city palace. Badly damaged in the war, the original palace was razed in 1950. For now, it is unclear whether the palace will ever be built due to funding problems, and not everyone is a fan of the project. Due to savings measures passed in response to the economic crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has decided to postpone reconstruction of the palace during its current term in office, which many see as a death blow to the ambitious project.
Despite the wave of nostalgia that is currently gripping Germany, it is unlikely that many cityscapes, like the Frankfurt skyline, will change much. Still, many of the ugliest modernist structures will be redone and others will be demolished. But the debate continues.