In 1945 intense bombing gave the Germans a unique opportunity comprehensively to redesign their towns and cities. The damage to the urban fabric was so great that reconstruction was expected to take sixty years. It took ten. Yet, the bland architecture of many cities today suggests that the Germans squandered their chances. They certainly demolished too much and arguably restored to little pre-war life and spirit of many of their finest towns. They could have done better; but, as In The Wake of War.
The Reconstruction of German Cities after World War II, by Jeffry Diefendorf shows, they faced constraints which were as complex and critical as those affecting their economic recovery. The scale of the damage was staggering. The rubble from the ten worst-affected large cities lone would have covered Hyde Park to a depth of 500 feet. Moreover, capable planners and architects were scarce. Diefendorf, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, has written an excellent, extensively researched book on the reconstruction of war-damaged German cities after 1945.
This reconstruction involved in part the massive clearance of rubble from streets and building sites; yet it also required a comprehensive rethinking of planning, architecture, and building law. German city planners had to resolve several dilemmas. First, they needed to distance German cities from their Nazi past, yet also restore legitimate architectural landmarks. Second, German planners’ alliance with the growing international modernist movement conflicted with this concern for historic preservation. Finally, the grand hopes of comprehensively redesigning the outmoded city centers were constrained by the urgent need for basic housing.
In this scholarly study addressed to students of history, architecture, city planning, and development, Jeffrey M. Diefendorf makes two broad and interrelated contributions. He delineates the activities, ideas, and institutional processes that accompanied the rebuilding of many of West Germany’s ruined cities after World War II; and he shows that the country’s urban reconstruction between 1945 and 1955-60, when reviewed structurally, was influenced by manifest material exigencies as well as notable prior urban planning and design traditions. Many had emigrated in the 1930s.
Those who worked under the Nazis were now distrusted or dismissed. These difficulties were compounded by shortages of power, equipment and transport and by the Allied requisitioning and dismantling of essential equipment. There were further problems. Each city had had a distinctive pre-war character. Each was differently affected by bombing. Thus, each faced different reconstruction problems and proposed different solutions. There was no central administration, and Nazi planning arrangements were in abeyance; so co-ordination and planning controls were weak. Nor could municipalities start with a clean slate.
Buildings, building lines and property rights still existed: even the rubble belonged to someone. Moreover, the best course of action was unclear. Prussian, Weimar and Nazi planning and architectural traditions remained strong yet were now unacceptable; and no agreed alternatives existed. Were they to restore the old or build something new? Architects, lanners, local councils, the Allied occupation authorities and the local populations all had conflicting preferences. Aspects of the Reconstruction The primary focus is on the early postwar years, from 1945 through the late 1950s.
Though reconstruction efforts continued well into the 1960s (and some even to the present day), Diefendorf argues that by the late 1950s the explicit reconstruction of bombed cities gave way to a broader process of growth and modernization. In fact, Marshall Plan aid and the West German economic miracle accelerated what many in 1945 thought would be a forty-year reconstruction period. Diefendorf wisely examines the events leading up to 1945, from the Bauhaus architectural influences of the 1920s to wartime bombing and planning (including plans to build underground, bomb-proof fortress cities called Webrstadte).
He spends an entire chapter on prewar German planning, and an especially interesting chapter on postwar planners; both are useful references for comparative work on the profession and its intellectual history. Diefendorf reminds us that urban reconstruction is a very complex and emotionally charged subject, since so many concerns, both practical and psychological, need to be satisfied. Right at the end of the war reconstruction would have to take place immediately in order to the major cities of Germany to recover and get back on its tracks.
The need for structures from the wide variety of sectors in German cities would reasonably come from the German population eager to start their lives anew. Apart from the financial limitations and other hindrances in terms of resources, the reconstruction of the whole German cities and the German pride would have to come at a price—a substantial where the stakes encompass not only the physical but, more significantly, the emotional and psychological aspects of the planners, builders, and of the entire population.
At the end of the war, the first desperate need was for shelter for the unhoused, tired, and defeated civilian population, augmented by refugees, expellees, and returning war veterans. This was the time of clearing the rubble by the famous “Trummerfrauen,” as it was also a time of conflict between private initiative and public control, a period of vast black market activities and widespread illegal building. These things, on a larger perspective, prove to be huge hindrances to the restoration of the integrity of the country as well as for the physical reconstruction of Germany’s major cities.
Conditions changed as soon as the currency reform of 1948 had taken hold. There were, of course, still problems of expropriation and compensation of private property and there was no generally applicable agreement as to who had jurisdiction over the rebuilding process. As the book sheds light on the disparity over the jurisdiction rights over the reconstruction process, the struggle between the public control and private initiative nevertheless emphasized the parallel aim of reconstructing the fallen country.
And although the town, the state, and the federal government had conflict in determining precisely who is responsible over certain areas and aspects of the reconstruction process, funds were eventually provided by a special equalization of burden tax. Behind the Pages: Redefining the Postwar German Reconstruction Focusing on the experience of over thirty of Germany’s largest cities, this is the first general account in English of the mighty efforts to rebuild urban Germany after 1945.
The research effort and the command of detail are impressive and Diefendorf tells the involved tale with clarity and style. However, the treatment is uneven. It covers only the West Germany and concentrates on just four cities: Munich, Cologne, West Berlin and, especially, Hamburg. The book, in general, is excellent history, thorough, documented, well organized, and readable written. On its own terms, there is little to criticize although at some point the aspects worthy of criticism shelve out the idea of discrediting the whole book.
The illustrations are excellently chosen, with striking before-and-after photos, although some city plans would have helped. The organization by subject rather than chronology—rubble clearance, architectural style, historical preservation, housing, city planning, law, and administrative organizations—works well, even if it occasionally demands separating one event into pieces in different chapters. The research apparently occupied the author for fifteen years, took him to numerous archives, and led him to interviews both of key participants and of other researchers.
Its assiduousness shows in the result—shows perhaps too much, when we are given lists of planners or names of streets occasionally burden the text without adding to understanding. Newly found sources tend to direct attention out of proportion, but everything is clear, and by and large a suitable degree of skepticism is sprinkled over the self-serving quotations from participants. The distinctive East German reconstruction effort is omitted: East Berlin and Dresden rate only passing mention.
Furthermore, the detailed discussion of architectural and planning principles, wartime planning and the local politicking is a trifle microscopic. I should have preferred fewer endnotes and a briefer bibliography, which together constitute over one quarter of the book. But the reconstruction of West Germany’s cities after 1945 remains a tale worth telling. In his structuralist perspective, the post war reconstruction of West Germany’s battered cities marked neither a radical break with the past nor a completely new beginning.
He emphasizes that “significant continuities linked the periods before and after 45” (p. xvi). The emphasis on continuities does not, however, keep him from sketching the signal discontinuity created by the wartime “war against the cities. ” The war had been awesome and awful: 45 percent of the housing stock had been destroyed or damaged. Urban Germans needed to clear mountains of rubble, to procure scarce materials and labor for reconstruction, to rebuild both legally and illegally in order to survive.
The legal and illegal ways in which the Germans engaged themselves into all for the name of salvaging whatever they can from the ruins of the war is partially discussed in the book. The very existence of these twofold activities meant that by any possible means the reconstruction of the major German cities, towns, and the entire nations would have to be met. Yet this is the part where the book gathers the conviction to assert the idea that such an objective was not an easy task as it may have sounded.
A lot of hindrances would have to be faced along the way such as financial constraints and conflict over who is going to be responsible for which specific areas are to be reconstructed, and on what buildings are to be erected. Diefendorf’s accent, however is on the “face of reconstruction”: on such issues as architectural styles and historic preservation and such problems as old an new housing, town planning, and building laws. These topics take up most of the book, and he derives credible conclusions in each case. Throughout, he shows the importance of the long-term historical context.
The ties of the book with history is both necessary and interesting apart from the reason that postwar Germany is a good ground for substantiating on the idea of how a nation faces the most wretched conditions and is able to stand on its own, recovering almost immediately from a pace hardly achieved by any other country. In architecture, he suggests that a broadly conceived “modernist” style, although struggling with traditionalism and bowing to expediency, survived into the postwar period, becoming dominant in the late 1950s.
As to historic preservation, German cities chose separate paths after settling on whether, how, “and under what conditions to rebuild the damaged shell” (p. 69). Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, and Stuttgart generally favored modernization; Munster, Freiburg, and Nuremberg emphasized their historic character; Lubeck, Cologne, and Munich took a middle path. The chapter contains excellent photographs, and Diefendorf observes that planners tended to prefer modernization whereas citizens’ groups called for preservation. Planning Amidst Reconstruction Difficulties
Debates about architecture and political behavior had taken place since the 1920s. The book highlights the idea that traditional architecture, with its component of historic preservation, and its stress on regional domestic variations and native building materials, vied with more modern forms of city planning, with its emphasis on commerce, industry and transportation, particularly on traffic by car. In many cases the aerial bombardment had razed the center and most densely settled area of the city, and had provided the planners with a ready-made ground and the opportunity for modern rebuilding.
Here was a chance to solve the problems of earlier unplanned urbanization that had been brought about by the industrialization. In a large number of cases, underground sewage, water, gas and electricity conduits were not heavily damaged and could be used again. The rapid rebuilding of the German cities, done within almost a decade, can only be understood in terms of previous long-term urban planning. Notably, German housing shortages dated back to the turn of the century. Far from abating during the Weimar Republic, they were further complicated and compounded during the Nazi regime.
A housing crisis developed particularly during World War II, persisting into the postwar period partly because extensive new construction did not begin until the currency reform of 1948. Thereafter, modest residential housing units in both suburbs and inner cities began to appear across the Federal Republic. This outcome was aided by a broad consensus on housing construction, the passage of a federal housing law in 1950, as well as private and public funding (with small Marshall Plan funds acting as “lubricant”).
In this case, it can be noted that the existence of housing predicaments paved the way for the attention of the public and private sectors. Diefendorf further notes that “the growth of a body planning law paralleled the growth of town planning in Germany in the late nineteenth century” (p. 222). This observation of the author corresponds to the belief that the increase in the reaches of Germany’s body planning law has something to do with the increase in the planning for the reconstruction of various parts of Germany.
From the minor to the major towns and cities, the laws enacted by the states to set limits and definitions on ways that affect the reconstruction of the various regions led to a sweeping set of changes in the urban lives of the people. The prominent architects and city planners, who were in direct participation in the efforts of reconstruction during the early period of the postwar era, had accumulated their training during the Weimar Republic, had been actively participating during the Third Reich, and were more than eager to use their skills and competence in the service of building during the postwar era.
They saw themselves as individuals belonging to the nonpolitical group, just as the large number of doctors had done. They were engaged essentially in developing the cities while straying away from the political domain and the influence of political groups that seek to control the reconstruction process to their advantage. Yet even if the laws were enacted, there were notable lapses that undermine the very purpose in which these laws were created. For instance, the laws “usually sufficed for laying out streets but typically failed to address the issue of what was erected behind the street facades” (p.
222). There were certain lapses that the book highlights, which veritably amounts to the presumption that even if there were salient legal efforts to boost the reconstruction process by setting legal definitions on the process, these were nevertheless not without certain unique lapses on their own. Predictably, the enduring housing problems had kept the planners busy during peace and war. Diefendorf emphasizes that postwar planning remained largely in the hands of pre-1945 planners who had gained experience in the years 1933-45 but whose plans tended to predate the Nazi regime.
Despite the planner’s ambivalence about public input and their debatable insistence that they were “apolitical,” Diefendorf treats them and their plans generously; Freiburg and Cologne came to exemplify “conservative” planning, Kiel and Aachen demonstrated the “pragmatic” approach, while the “partial planning” of Mainz and Berlin “resembled that of most other West German cities” (p. 197). If the planners failed to solve the burgeoning postwar traffic problems, it was because they could not anticipate the speedy arrival and proliferation of private motor vehicles.
Diefendorf makes it clear that planning the reconstruction of vast cities and towns is not a process under the helm of pure democracy. It was at the same time burdensome and difficult to reconcile the wishes of the whole mass of populations who desire to avert back their familiar environment. It was also difficult to reconcile the needs of an expanding and forward-looking economy under the oversight of a wide variety of public and private organizations. The book has two related flaws: It misstates its subject, and it is not interdisciplinary.
Its real subject is the planning for the reconstruction of German cities after the war (and the organizational and legal problems that accompanied that planning), but not the economics, the politics, or the sociology of the reconstruction process itself. Its focus is on what planners said, what theories they held, what positions they occupied, a little about what they accomplished, and much more about what they did not accomplish. Along the way, many interesting questions are raised: Is there such a thing as Nazi planning? (Yes, but only in limited areas.
) Did planning evolve continuously from the Weimar Republic through the Nazi era to the postwar years, or was the Nazi period a sharp break in continuity? (No sharp break. ) Was reconstruction planning “successful? ” (Under the circumstances, remarkably so, although, in hindsight, with many shortcomings. ) Yet it appears that the flesh and blood of reconstruction is apparently still to be found. Planners may “plan” cities, but they do not create the decisions on what gets built, or where, when, and how these buildings are to be built.
Not unlike in the United States, in Germany after the war, developers, builders, financial institutions, property owners, and politicians concerend about taxes, were all key players, as sometimes were groups of citizens with nonfinancial and nonpolitical motivations. Briefly, in discussing why comprehensive planning laws did not get passed, the author shares some intimation of pressures from property owners; briefly, in discussing organizations, he avers that when major banks played a role in planning, things went more smoothly.
Yet it may well be that the department-store, real-estate offices were more influential in what actually happened than the entire planner put together. Diefendorf displays understanding for the difficulties facing German planners, but his conclusions could be taken as the starting point for a critique of a functionalism stripped of aesthetic ambition. Postwar architecture tended to satisfy neither modernists nor traditionalists. Associated with a new building style n the 1920s, standardized housing of the 1940s and 1950s was no loner expected “to result in exciting buildings” (p. 61).
Functionalist abandonment of aesthetic concerns was also evident in planning. Emphasizing broad functional tasks, most city planners concerned themselves chiefly with public health and safety and with the flow of traffic in the cities. Although there may have been brilliant city planners involved in the reconstruction process, the funding for the entire process have also hindered the attainment of utterly expensive and grand architectural buildings, owing perhaps to the book’s observation that the proper appropriation of the financial budget had to be carefully managed so as to meet the ends.
The author quotes Leo Grebler, a real-estate economist familiar with market forces, to the effect that postwar German planning produced “traffic improvements and decongestion on central areas” (p. 347), but his explanation for the amelioration alludes only to the personalities of planners and planning theories. Diefendorf cites none of either the old or the new urban sociology, no urban politics, no social history to explain reactions to central planning, and no urban economics—nothing on the forces shaping cities worldwide in the postwar era.
Further, the book notes that “the war’s devastation offered Germany a unique opportunity to correct the failings of the urban blight produced by the industrial and population expansion of the second half of the nineteenth century” (p. 275). One of the book’s most fascinating discussions concerns the transformation of the German planning profession from the Nazi period to the early postwar years.