Take a look at the drawing to the right. (If you click on it, it will enlarge.) This is an image of the medieval city of Nuremberg, taken from the Nuremberg Chronicles—sort of a medieval version of a combination encyclopedia and atlas, published in 1493. This work described the peoples of the world shortly before the known world was about to double in size.
The book contained both maps and drawings of the principle cities, the largest of which was Nuremberg, where the book was printed.
The beautiful example at right was hand-colored, and clearly shows the old, walled city, protected by a moat, with well-guarded defensive gates.
This was a remarkable city that grew rapidly because the local artisans and merchants were free from the restrictions normally imposed by local guilds and unions. An imperial free city that had been granted local autonomy by the Holy Roman Emperor, the city quickly became both an economic hub and an artistic center, especially for printmaking and publishing.
Visitors can attest that the town still looks remarkably like this drawing, right down to the protective walls and the moat. Nuremberg has always looked like this…Except for a few years following 1945, when the historic district of Nuremberg was called the ‘steppes’, because the town was mostly loose brick and rubble.
Though this was the home of Albrecht Dürer, Michael Wolgemut, Adam Kraft, and countless other artists, if you mention Nuremberg today, the images that pop into mind are of the Nazi rallies staged there by Hitler or the War Crimes Trials held there later—a dark legacy that is unfair to a city that has contributed so much incredible art to the world.
Unfortunately, the Nazis turned the beautiful old city into something of a munitions factory, making it a prime target for strategic bombing. After building a sub-camp of Flossenbürg concentration camp close to the city, the unfortunate inmates provided slave labor for manufacturing aircraft, tank engines, and the diesel engines for submarines. The Allies were especially interested in destroying the latter, and Nuremberg was a frequent bombing target.
Between August of 1940 and August of 1943, the Royal Air Force bombed the city nine times, but it was usually the outskirts of town that were damaged. Early in the war, too, the raids were smaller, their accuracy was lower, and the munitions used were less effective. By 1944, this changed dramatically.
Throughout 1944, both the United States Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force repeatedly hit the industrial areas around Nuremberg. The American bombing raid on October 3rd was typical: 454 B-17 bombers destroyed 518 buildings, and damaged 5900 others. Luckily, the old city center was spared most of the damage.
The Nazi government knew that the Allies were reluctant to bomb areas with significant cultural significance and deliberately used several historic structures for just this reason. One centuries-old church was co-opted to house fortified anti-aircraft gun batteries.
The historic old city’s luck ran out on January 2, 1945 when 514 Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers and seven Mosquito wooden, multirole planes dropped 1800 tons of high explosives and 479 tons of incendiary bombs directly on the historic old city. By one account, over a million small incendiary devices were dropped. Since the old buildings had brick foundations and timber construction on the upper floors, the British thought a combination of the two munitions would start a fire storm.
The raid was more effective than the British had expected. In one hour, 4553 Buildings were completely destroyed and another 12,000 were damaged—about half of that number so thoroughly damaged that they could not be occupied. The resulting fires—over 3000 in number—finished off most of the remaining historic area.
Over 90% of the historic structures were simply gone. One of the few remaining structures was the former house of Albrecht Dürer, now the Dürer Museum. While the city fathers had hidden most of the city’s priceless art works and city records deep underground at the start of the war, most of the walled city was simply gone. What had formerly been beer cellars—some as deep as 24 meters—were used to store the city’s heritage through all of the bombs, fires, and combat.
The war was not yet over. The metropolitan area was targeted for strategic bombing another ten times after the initial firebombing of January 2. By the spring of 1945, the Russians were pushing towards Berlin from the East and a combination of the British, American, and Canadian forces had invaded Germany from the West. Despite the fact that the war was clearly lost, Hitler ordered his forces to fight to the last man (or last boy in many instances) in each of the German cities. In Nuremberg, Gruppenführer Eric Holz took the insane order literally, despite his forces being severely outnumbered.
The Battle for Nuremberg was a devastating example of the destructiveness of urban warfare because the American Infantry was forced to fight for each building and every block. Holz and the few remaining defenders eventually made their final stand in the city’s police station and by the time the building was destroyed, it was impossible to tell whether Holz had committed suicide or had died in the fighting. Ironically, it was Hitler’s birthday.
After the war, the city was the site of the infamous war crime trials which lasted until October 1946. Finally, in 1947, the city started to rebuild. The town fathers established a Board of Trustees for the Reconstruction of Nuremberg, and plans for a “new” version of the old city were approved. By 1955, most of the reconstruction was either in progress or finished, and by 1960, the replacement Nuremberg Town Hall was completed.
One of the longest-running projects was the rebuilding of the four-kilometer city wall, with its protective moat. Though reconstruction had to stop repeatedly while bomb crews removed unexploded ordnance, today, incredibly, half of the historic center of the old city once again resembles that five hundred year-old engraving.