Nuremberg: Terror and Redemption

We set off fairly early to meet the tour to Nuremberg at the station all bundled in our beanies and gloves. Nuremberg has a long and complex history; the site of both the former Nazi rally ground and the Nuremberg trials where some of the worst perpetrators in the Nazi regime were held accountable for their crimes against humanity. The bus journey took us out onto the highway and through Bavaria with its fields and fields of asparagus and hops. As you might have guessed Bavaria is an agricultural district and the largest hop growing region in the world – and when it comes to hops the Bavarians know what they’re doing, they should, they’ve been doing this since the 8th century. ¾ of the crops are exported, the remainder is used to supply the 1300 breweries in Germany, half of which are located in the Bavarian districts.

It was impossible not to notice how committed Germany seems to be towards alternative energy sources, every farmhouse rooftop was literally tiled in solar panels. There were even some set up in the fields. I couldn’t help but think if only we had the political will to invest in our country they would be doing something similar; the energy we could save, the jobs we could create….(though I do realise we have greater issues and frankly any evidence of political will would be nice) Moving onwards the bus crossed the Danube, (the 2nd largest river in Europe) and past Ingolstadt an important military town in its day. In fact it was while interred here that Charles De Gaulle learnt to speak German really well.

Typical Nuremberg Scenery
Typical Nuremberg Scenery

Although the day had begun as a bright and sunny morning (albeit a chilly 7 degrees) when we started out, it became, appropriately more sombre as we approached Nuremberg with grey clouds eventually giving way to rain. Nuremberg is nearly a thousand years old, the first mention of it was around 1050 and apparently its name comes from the Celtic word for “Rock on the hill”. It grew rapidly as a result of its location on key trade routes. Known as the unofficial capital of The Holy Roman Empire it was one of the largest cities in the Empire and in the 1490s it had a population of 45 000 to 50 000. There was,  from as early as the 12th century also a thriving Jewish community who have, at various times in its history been subject to horrendous pogroms long before the Nazis even existed. For instance in 1298, they were accussed of desecrating the (communion) host and 698 of them were massacred. More likely the truth was that powerful individuals had loaned money from them and, reluctant to pay it back fanned rumours and fears into a full blooded massacre. In 1310 Emperor Henry VII issued an edict forbidding them to sell meat to Christians, to bathe with them or to engage in any trade on pain of expulsion. These are just two examples…there are more.

However by all accounts the city itself was vibrant and filled with skilled artisans renown across the land for manufacturing the finest musical instruments and the most accurate compasses. The first paper press was established as early as 1392 and in the 15th century they had one of the first printing presses. This is also the home of Albrecht Durer (1471 to 1528) a painter, printer and theorist of German Renaissance famous for being one of the first artists to do a self portrait. This period of prosperity ended with the 30 year war (1618 to 1648) a war that began over religion but, as with all conflict ultimately turn out to be about power. Although Nuremberg itself stayed neutral the surrounding areas were devastated and the entire region took many, many years to recover.

Aerial View of Nuremberg
Aerial View of Nuremberg

Unfortunately for Nuremberg much of its fame comes not from its period of glory but rather from its association with its most ignoble admirer, Adolf Hitler. As Hitler rose to power one of his ambitions was to have 5 Fuhrer states; Linz Austria, Munich, Berlin,  Hamburg and Nuremberg which he considered “the most German of cities” Ironic given that at the time and throughout its history Nuremberg had a thriving Jewish community. Thriving that is when they weren’t being persecuted.

As early as 1927 and 1929 Hitler held among his first Nazi rallies at Nuremburg, attracting thousands of supporters, and a further 6 rallies were held there between 1933 and 1938. It was at the site of these rallies that we started our tour. The Reichsparteitagsgelande or, Reich Party Congress Grounds covered about 11 square kilometres and the vast majority of the design was implemented by Hitler’s architect,  Albert Speer.There is also a great road approximately 2km in length and 40 m wide intended to be a parade road for the Wehrmacht. East of this great road lies the Zeppelinfeld (so named because in August 1909 General von Zeppelin  landed there with one of his airships) with an enormous grandstand 360 m wide based upon the Pergamon Altar and designed to be imposing drawing all eyes to where Hitler and his “dignitaries” would stand. It was topped by a huge symbol of the swastika which the Americans blew up after the war. There was also a Congress Hall, inspired by the Colosseum (nothing small about Nazi thinking) and intended to eventually be able to house up to 50 000 of the party members. There was much debate after the WWII whether to tear down this site but it was kept as a reminder of to future generations of the Nazi terror.

Nazi Congress Hall
Nazi Congress Hall

From there we went to the documentation centre which hosts a permanent exhibition the appropriately called “Fascination and Terror” and which is arranged chronologically from the rise of the Nazi Party all the way through to the Nuremberg trials. It considers the causes, the context and the consequences of the National Socialist reign of terror. 

It may be hard from our perspective to understand how a nation of people could be so blind as to the ultimate goal of this megalomaniac but one needs to keep in mind how desperate, crushed, humiliated and down trodden the Treaty of Versaille left the German nation. In such circumstances they were ripe for Hitler’s clever manipulation, his promise to restore their economy, their pride and their dignity. I wonder sometimes if South Africa’s apartheid era will not prove to be our Versaille. ..

Sadly while I believe if we do not remember our history we are doomed to repeat it, remembering is apparently not always enough. Currently in Germany there is a far right party gaining support whose rallying call is that “Islamic people don’t belong in Germany ” they want to ban the call to prayers, pull down minarets and prevent women wearing burqas. I feel a small measure of relief at the protests against them…but still I wonder, have we learnt nothing from our past? Alienating a group of people and taking away their rights is always going to end badly for everyone. Today Nuremberg prides itself on being a city that actively promotes human rights and it’s documentation centre has been recognised by UNESCO for doing so.

We left the documentation centre sombre and silent. It is a good thing then that despite its history of political strife and persecution, Nuremberg also contains much that is beautiful and even in the intermittent drizzle wandering the streets and alleys we were soon captivated by its charming old town centre -Alstadt -surrounded by a 4 km city wall and towered over by the old imperial castle.

Nuremberg Castle Wall
Nuremberg Castle Wall

We wandered down pedestrian streets, over quaint bridges and through the market selling trinkets, gingerbread cookies for which it is famed and the most delectable looking fresh fruit and vegetables. One can see that it suffered a great deal during the war but so far as possible it has been restored and we could admire half timbered, Franco styled houses, and gothic castlesIt is also renowned for creating high quality toys for children, has a toy museum and hosts one of the biggest toy fairs….which left me thinking about Hans Christian Anderson and his story of the toy soldier. (Yes, yes I know he was actually Danish)

Nuremberg Hauptmarkt
Nuremberg Hauptmarkt

Despite its quaint appearance Nuremberg and the surrounding cities are home to many well-known German companies, e.g. Adidas, Diehl, Faber-Castell, Playmobil, Puma and several divisions of industrial giant Siemens. It was a packed day and we were quite finished by the time we boarded the bus to leave this beautiful  city with a rich past both dark and brilliant. 

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