Everywhere I went last summer had been impacted by WWII, but I mostly avoided war memorials so my encounters were more side-notes like, “people hid in these caves”, or “the Allies / Nazis used this tower / bombed this building”, or “here’s where we smuggled Jews out”, but everyone else had the by-line “we were invaded, it’s not like we wanted the Nazis here”. Since the Nazis originated in Germany, you can imagine the story isn’t quite the same, and yet Germany is (rightfully) not proud of it’s role in the war. I always take photos of the signs in museums to help me write later, but in this case, I’ll be quoting those signs rather than summarizing them because I feel like the way that the Germans handled the history is much more significant to this post than the history itself. You can read about the events of WWII on Wikipedia, but you can’t hear the voice of Hamburg unless you go there.
It started out like many other historical museums of ruins, the various buildings and rebuildings of the church over 900 years. There was some information about the reformation and the change from Catholicism to Lutheranism… normal church history stuff accompanied by some statues, stained glass, and other relics from the history of the building.
The history of St. Nikolai began in 1195 when Count Adolf donated to the cathedral a plot of land on which a chapel was to be built. This chapel was dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen and merchants.
Over the following centuries St. Nikolai gradually grew to become one of Hamburg’s largest parishes. Growth of the parish as well as natural disasters called for the constant enlargement of the building. In 1527 the change brought about by the Reformation movement made itself felt as well. Johann Zegenhagen became the first Lutheran Senior Minister.
St Nikolai was destroyed in the Great Fire of Hamburg on 5 May 1842. It was only four years later that the cornerstone was laid for the new neo-Gothic church designed by British architect George Gilbert Scott. The spire, finished in 1874, is still the fifth highest sacred building in the world.
Since the days of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg has played a major role in German politics and economy. Because of its importance for trade and industry, the Hanseatic city was given the title of a Führerstadt (Fuhrer City) in the 1930s. Adolf Hitler personally was strongly involved in Hamburg’s urban development plans. A large part of the population sympathized with Hamburg’s role as the new Reich’s ‘gateway to the world’.
Hamburg’s population had been prepared for a possible air war at an early stage. The construction of air-raid shelters and ARP training were meant to boost confidence in the system. A wide range of propaganda measures aimed at strengthening the Volksgemeinschaft (national community).
Hamburg’s citizens were meant to cope with the challenges of aerial warfare in a ‘soldierly’ manner. Propaganda Minister Goebbels even hoped for a positive effect on the coherence of the community. The air war, he said, could tear down class barriers and create the true Germany.
*ARP stands for “Air Raid Protection”
Air War: Entertainment for Young and Old
Right from the beginning, the Nazi regime had pretended that civil air defense was perfectly normal. A board game called Luftschutz tut not! (Air raid precautions are essential!) introduced entire families to the everyday life of air war. Entertainment and war was not a contradiction in terms.
The Fascination of Bomb Craters
Given the initially ‘successful’ German campaigns, war seemed to be a long way off. Early air raids on Hamburg were considered a rarity. Bomb craters and destroyed houses became popular sites for outings that people could then talk about.
Increased Air Bombings Used by Nazis to Further De-Humanize Jews/Minorities
The history preceding the events of summer 1943 began no later than on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The decision of the Allies to area-bomb the city of Hamburg was also a response to earlier German air raids. The massive destruction of Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Coventry by German bombers fleets was paid back to the German “home front” in the shape of a firestorm.
The Nazi regime had begun long before 1943 to prepare the population for bombing. The systematic exclusion from the air-raid shelters of specific categories of people again demonstrated the regime’s contempt for humanity.
The relatively successful operations of German forces represented a massive challenge to the Allies. Political and military developments led to a fundamental change in strategy. After targeted raids had been made against Hamburg’s industry, Operation Gomorrah was intended to break down support for the Nazi regime from the German population. In the city on the Elbe the Allies’ area-wide airstrikes exacted the highest toll of casualties so far in the bombing war.
As the bombing increased leading up to 1943, it only fueled the Nazi desire to punish the Jews and other “unwanteds” living in Hamburg.
As in all parts of Nazi society, Jews and other marginalized minorities were excluded from official ARP. At most, they were permitted to seek refuge in self-made makeshift shelters.
As the war advanced, discrimination and exclusion intensified. In the wake of the first major air raids on Hamburg the Gauleiter, Karl Kaufmann, turned to Hitler asking for help. He intended to deport Jews to benefit those who had been bombed out.
With Hitler’s approval, thousands of Jews were deported. Their homes and part of their possessions were distributed among bombed-out ‘Aryans’.
Some citizens applied specifically for such homes and quite knowingly benefited from the deportation of the Jews without showing the slightest trace of a sense of guilt or wrongdoing.
On display were the actual records of items that had been taken from imprisoned and deported Jews and auctioned off to loyal ‘Aryan’ citizens.
The Story of the Ledermann Family
The preserved letters of Anita Ledermann, a Jewess, shed light on her life and that of her family during the air war. All in all, 72 letters to her friend Gunnar Schweer, and his family were preserved. She reported about the increasing oppression by the Gestapo, her experiences during and after the bombing, her futile attempts to leave the country, and finally her farewell before being deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt.
Anita and her parents were later killed in Auschwitz. Only her sister survived as a forced labourer in Saxony. Auction files document that Hamburg citizens acquired the abandoned possessions of the Ledermanns at a bargain price.
Operation Gomorrah began on the night of 24/24 July 1943. Over the next ten days, British and US bomber fleets destroyed a large part of Hamburg. About 34,000 people lost their lives.
This catastrophic event made a deep impression on the population. Nevertheless, each individual experience offered a unique and very different perspective. Both the pilots carrying out orders and the population seeking refuge in – sometimes only makeshift – air-raid shelters were scared to death.
During those days and nights Hamburg was permanently on alert. With their suitcases packed, citizens waited for the next air-raid warning. Only a few of them found places in the shelters that were thought to be safe. Jews and foreigners and forced labourers were automatically refused entry. Many of them searched in vain for shelter in the burning city.
Those persecuted by the regime feared for their lives, but at the same time hoped for liberation.
The City of Hamburg also used prisoners of the Nuengamme concentration camp for clearance work. In constant mortal danger and under dreadful conditions, they were forced to clear rubble, retrieve bodies and look for unexploded ordnance. The people of Hamburg could see them and occasionally came into contact with them.
Recovering bodies not only caused extreme psychological stress, but was also highly dangerous because parts of buildings came crashing down. Some boroughs in the east of the city had to be declared restricted zones because the danger of an epidemic loomed.
Stories of what was going on in Hamburg, oppression and exploitation, evidence of such things which actually made me cry because the stories are so personal. This person was taken away and their home and goods were redistributed to “good party members” whose homes were lost to air raids.
The propaganda. The division of classes. The way that those not deemed worthy were denied safety. I was struggling. This was the reason I didn’t want to go to an actual war memorial. If this little underground museum is so full of pain, what is it like at the ruins of Dachau?
And then I watched a film about the Firestorm in 1943 that destroyed 90% of the city including the church I came to see. It was insanely graphic and personal. Nonetheless, I had trouble feeling sad for the people who suffered and died as these were the people who had been complicit in the cruelty and deaths of those featured in the first section of the museum.
True they were mostly civilians, but they happily benefited from the system of oppression and tyranny. This isn’t the same video I watched. The one in the museum had a narration telling us of the horrible suffering of those caught in the fire who burned or suffocated while trapped in collapsing buildings; however it was the most similar visually, if you feel the need to look.
There was a section that was more or less neutral with photos of places around Hamburg before, during, and after the war and reconstruction. Normally I cringe to see the aftermath of bombing yet when the photos showed Nazi structures being destroyed and rebuilt it didn’t feel like destruction so much as it felt like the surgical removal of a cancer.
In War, Everyone Suffers
Finally the last section was about Germans who escaped the Firestorm and fled the city. They were almost all children at the time of the war, and they again told deeply personal stories.
A Ticket to Get Away
“My husband had given me those Atikah cigarettes and so I said to my sister, ‘You know, we’ll take these; who knows, they might come in handy.’ Barmbek was still intact at the time, so we got through all right. Everywhere there were treks that also wanted to get out of Hamburg. We walked through this bombed city, by no means could we ride our bicycles, because the streets were so utterly destroyed, and sometimes the houses were still burning. Above all this there hovered a terribly undefinable stench. It was the smell of corpses. I don’t know what dead bodies smell like, but that was how I had imagined it.
Then at some point we were on an outward road near the Berliner Tor. Everywhere there were crowds of people with all sorts of wheels to which everything was attached that they wanted to save and take along. We also waved at people. But nobody wanted to take the bikes as well. But after all, they were worth a fortune. How could one have got hold of a new bike later on? All of a sudden we had this idea about the cigarettes: We’ll hold up the cigarettes and everybody prepared to take us on board will get cigarettes. It didn’t take long and someone stopped and we said first of all, ‘But you’ll also have to take the bikes.’ ‘Yes. That’s all right. Where are you heading for?’ ‘Lüneburg.’ ‘Okay, get up then.’ They got their cigarettes and we were permitted on to teh vehicle. At eleven at night we arrived at the market square in Lüneburg. We were tired to death and absolutely knackered.”
–Inga Bonn, born 1920
Inga would have been 19 when Germany invaded Poland, and 23 when this story took place.
The First Step into a New Life
“There we were, left with nothing. We had absolutely nothing. The first saucepan that my father bought after we had been bombed out, well, I still take great care of it even today. It is a small old iron saucepan, and every year on Christmas I use it to render goose drippings. My daughter has told me ten times already, ‘I would have chucked it out long since.’ ‘Nah’, I say, ‘it means a lot to me.’ This was the first new item than my father got. That was in 1943. My father died in January 1944. He was gone.”
–Eva Kralle, born 1931
Eva would have been only 8 when Germany invaded Poland, and only 12 when the city of Hamburg was destroyed.
Barefooted Through the Phosphorus
“We walked through cellars. Until then we didn’t know what the world outside looked like. Then we climbed out somewhere. Whether it was a window or a door, I don’t remember. In the morning at eight, a storm, a firestorm. And the sky was red and black, no daylight. And the storm. We put blankets over our heads so nothing was peeking out. Us girls one after the other and the lieutenant always in front. Then the houses crashed down, those to the left and right. There were only ruins left. Well, we had to scramble over rubble, over tram rails that had already bent. Then I lost my shoes and I walked on in my bare feet.
For hours we walked on to the Dammtor. I had been burnt by phosphorus, because I was barefoot, you know. On arrival I was immediately seen to. There was a paramedic there and she said, ‘You have phosphorus burns.’ Do you think I could remember that it was painful? I can’t remember at all. Then she bandaged my feet and asked me if I had any shoes. ‘I have straw shoes’, she said. ‘I can give you those, then you have at least something for your feet.’
—Esther Angel, born 1925
Esther was 14 when Germany invaded Poland, and 18 when Operation Gomorrah destroyed her home.
“My brother died on this path near Frankenstaβe. He had a briefcase and was allowed to take it to grammar school. I was the little brother, going to primary school with a satchel. Satchels were something terrible. I had always envied my brother that briefcase. And as luck would have it, the briefcase needed to be repaired. Something had to be sewn. And our cobbler, well, he lived at Raboisen and was not bombed out.
One day he came and brought us my brother’s briefcase which I got then. For years I used that briefcase to go to school. It was one of the few keepsakes of my brother’s which were of incredible value to me.”
—Andreas Hachingen, born 1930
Andreas was 9 at the invasion of Poland and only 13 when he lost his brother in the bombing of Hamburg.
I realized that however much I might hold the adults complicit, children can’t be held to the same standard. It makes you ask where is the line, when does someone become old enough to own the fact that part of their culture is hatred and murder?
What is the Right Way to Remember?
The language used for the displays is deeply personal and vivid but also very matter of fact. “This is what we did. This is what was done to us. Draw your own conclusions.” It’s very emotional. It’s also very different from every other country even Japan who tend to want to forget their own role in bringing the air raids to their shores. Or America’s memorials about slavery which tend to be “oh, yes we did horrible things but we figured it out and got better” (not 100% true).
At the museum of St. Nikolai, it feels like, “this horrible thing happened here and we want to remember it happened because we did horrible things first”. There is controversy on how to honor those who died.
The Hamburg firestorm literally burned its way into people’s memory. Only a few days after the bombings, the Nazi Gauleiter denounced the ‘Anglo-American bombing terror’.
After the end of the war this crude propaganda was replaced by complex and divergent memories. Each decade chose its own way of remembering. Often specific interests governed the format and contents of commemoration.
After the end of the war the anniversaries were observed on a highly regular basis. Many different memorial sites were created, ranging from a modest clay tablet on a new building to artist-designed monuments. At Ohlsdorf cemetery there is a mass grave of bomb victims. This is where in 1952 Gerhard Marcks’ memorial was inaugurated.
On the 60th anniversary of the Hamburg firestorm Jörg Friedrich’s book “Der Brand” (the Fire) triggered a heated debate on the air war. Many people were wrestling to find a proper way to navigate through the culture of remembrance. Some even declared the bombing war a ‘taboo’ topic.
In fact, the bombing in general and the Hamburg firestorm in particular have never been a taboo issue. Furthermore, the debate on the right form of commemoration is as old as the bombings themselves.
The commemorations are not only for the victims of the Nazis, but the ordinary citizens of Hamburg who likely felt themselves “not involved in politics”. If only the children, at least some who died here were innocent, and all who died here had loved ones. Yet the firebomb was not a random act of aggression. There were not “very fine people on both sides”. German invasion and aggression had to be stopped. However horrific the Firestorm was, we still see it as justified because it was used to stop the spread of Nazis.
I can’t tell you what to think any more than the museum seeks to. I can only encourage you to explore history, to seek truth and perspective, and to never grow so complacent that you think it can’t happen again if we forget.
The Ordeal was created by the Hamburg artist Edith Breckwoldt for the memorial site of Sandbostel, Lower Saxony. Sandbostel is the place where until 1945 one of the Nazi’s biggest prisoner camps was located. More than 50,000 people from many countries met their death here. The sculpture’s pedestal is built from the original stones of the prisoners’ barracks which were collected by pupils of Sandbostel on the ground of the camp. Sandbostel was also the final station for about 10,000 prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg.