I had the recent pleasure of spending a cross-country plane ride with "The New Kings of Nonfiction," a collection edited by "This American Life" host, Ira Glass. As usual, despite the book's focus on "the new," it was the old I was most drawn to -- specifically, an article on World War II by Lee Sandlin. Though this article was new to me, "Losing The War" is already being hailed as a classic. You can read the whole thing on Lee's web site.
My favorite passage deals with Hitler and chief architect Albert Speer's fascination with "ruin value." Inspired by the breathtaking ruins of Rome, Hitler and Speer wondered how the world would view their colossal urban plans a thousand years after the demise of the "Thousand Year Reich." They hit upon the idea of adding extra structural reinforcements, strategically placed among the arches and pillars, ensuring that "some picturesque element" of the architecture would survive over the years. Thusly, the Nazis would continue to "inspire awe" long after the end of their reign:
Speer's memoirs reproduce some of the sketches he did to illustrate the idea of ruin value. They show the immense public works projects he'd been designing [...] in a state of picturesque decay, half-crumbled and overrun by weeds. Hitler adored them. The members of his inner circle loathed them. They were uncomfortable with the idea that the Reich would ever fall, then or in a thousand years, and they darkly wondered if Speer was some kind of subversive troublemaker, playing to the Fuhrer's mysterious and disturbing fondness for images of twilight, decay, and tragedy.
Of course, the Romans never had to contend with the modern innovation of aerial carpet bombing. Neither did the fine folks of Wurzburg; that is, not until March 16th, 1945. That evening, they got their own visit from Britain's Royal Air Force. Was the attack of strategic importance to the Allied war aims, or just part of their ongoing campaign of retaliation and "workforce dehousing?" Whatever the reason, in just over 15 minutes, 85% of Wurzburg was gone, including most of the town's true primary asset: its architectural treasures, many dating back more than thirteen centuries.
Undaunted by the destruction (and the five thousand dead), the town picked itself up and spent the next two decades salvaging what they could and replacing the rest. Sixty years later, a certain Yours Truly learned of Wurzburg during an idle browse of a Tucson antique shop, where I discovered a beautiful book on the subject. Though the text is entirely in German -- more than a challenge for my one semester of that language (studied, coincidentally enough, at Tucson's University Of Arizona), the gorgeous black and white photographs speak for themselves. The Allies may have delivered a hell on earth for the citizens of Wurzburg, but they also created a photographer's paradise.
Dramatic subject matter abounds as we see folks going about the business of their lives amid the rubble of their ruined city. Construction crews, teams of engineers and small clusters of "Trümmerfrauen," ("Rubblewomen" or "women of ruins," depending on the rigors of your translatorship) work to put the pieces back together. The immediate concern was to quickly throw up places for people to live, seeing as how one hundred percent of the housing was destroyed in the raid. Naturally, given the constrictions of the situation, most of the new structures consisted of cement blocks with minimal ornamentation. Sure, it had a certain modernist charm, and it was no small accomplishment, but still: not exactly what folks had been accustomed to.
The excerpts of "Wurzburg 1945-1955" presented here tell the story of a town's forced entry into "the modern world." Facing their future, with nowhere near the luxury of some of their contemporaries, the citizens of Wurzburg still managed to devote resources to preserving what they could of their past.