Turning Back the hands of Time: Historical Reconstructions

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the effect that cleaning up old buildings has on our understanding of history. I felt that in some way it erases the past, giving us a different picture of what has gone before, allowing us to effectively airbrush history. What about historical reconstructions of building destroyed by wars, commercial redevelopment or overzealous town planning? Take for example the Frauenkirche in Dresden…

Frauenkirche: 1880

The original Frauenkirche was built between 1726 and 1743 as a Lutheran parish church, despite the predominance of the Catholic faith in the region. George Bähr, Dresden’s city architect, designed the church and its most unique feature, the high dome (called the Stenerne Glocke or stone bell.)  For the next two hundred years, the Frauenkirche dominated the skyline of Dresden.

On February 13, 1945, Anglo-American forces began firebombing the city. The

Frauenkitche 1967

Frauenkirche withstood two days of the attacks before the dome collapsed on the morning of February 15th. In 1966, the ruins were officially declared a memorial against the war and commemorations were held at the site on the annual anniversary of the firebombing destruction of the city. In 1985, the city decided to rebuild the Frauenkirche, but little was done until after the reunification of Germany.

In 1990 “The Society to Promote the Reconstruction of the Church of Our Lady” was

Frauenkirche today

formed and a large fund-raising campaign began. The reconstruction of its exterior was completed in 2004, its interior in 2005 and, after 13 years of rebuilding, the church was reconsecrated on 30 October 2005.

Since re-opening, the Church has been a hugely popular tourist destination in Dresden. In the first three years after the re-opening, seven million people visited it. The project has inspired other groups around the world wanting to reconstruct buildings and environments obliterated by war.

That example of historical reconstruction pales into insignificance before the reconstruction of the old city of Warsaw in Poland.

During World War II, central Poland, including Warsaw, came under the rule of the General Government, a German Nazi colonial administration. All higher education institutions were immediately closed and Warsaw’s entire Jewish population – several hundred thousand, some 30% of the city – herded into the Warsaw Ghetto. When the order came to annihilate the ghetto as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution” on 19 April 1943, Jewish fighters launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Despite being heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the Ghetto held out for almost a month. When the fighting ended, almost all survivors were massacred, only few managed to escape or hide. 

Warsaw January 1945

By July 1944, the Red Army was deep into Polish territory and pursuing the Germans toward Warsaw. Knowing that Stalin was hostile to the idea of an independent Poland, the Polish government-in-exile in London gave orders to the underground Home Army (AK) to try to seize control of Warsaw from the Germans before the Red Army arrived. Thus, on 1 August 1944, as the Red Army was nearing the city, the Warsaw Uprising began. The armed struggle, planned to last 48 hours, went on for 63 days. Stalin gave orders to his troops to wait outside of Warsaw. Eventually the Home Army fighters and civilians assisting them were forced to capitulate. They were transported to PoW camps in Germany, while the entire civilian population was expelled.

Polish civilian deaths are estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000.

Warsaw 1945

The Germans then razed Warsaw to the ground. Hitler, ignoring the agreed terms of the capitulation, ordered the entire city to be razed to the ground and the library and museum collections taken to Germany or burned. Monuments and government buildings were blown up by special German troops known as Verbrennungs- und Vernichtungskommando (“Burning and Destruction Detachments”). About 85% of the city had been destroyed, including the historic Old Town and the Royal Castle.

In 1980, Warsaw’s Old Town has been placed on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites as “an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.

Well were the people of Dresden and Warsaw wrong to reconstruct their buildings? You could argue that rebuilding the past is nostalgic nonsense, that it falsifies and contradicts history and pretends that significant events from the past did not happen or that it is done only to fool tourists and children. You could make those arguments but who we are is tied up in many different things, including the built environment.

In my time [I was born ten-years after the war ended] have been saddened by the demolition of my old secondary school, the cinema I used to go to on Saturday mornings and the pub and club I used to visit for dances on a Friday night. No doubt you have had similar experiences. Image then what it must have felt like to return to Dresden, Warsaw, Hamburg, Berlin, Coventry or Hiroshima after the end of the Second World war and find almost nothing of the place you remember.

There would have been two very strong urges acting against each other. The urge to wipe the slate clean, pull down everything that remained and start again and the urge to recreate what was there before. In the UK, planners and politicians decided for the most part to trust to the future and rebuild the city centres of Coventry, Birmingham, Exeter and many others that suffered bomb damage in uncompromising, modern, concrete and glass. That was one way to cope with loss but many other people, especially those people in Eastern europe whose families were directly affected by invasion and the destruction of their communities to use the other option.

Personally, my sympathies are for the East Europeans. 

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About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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One Response to Turning Back the hands of Time: Historical Reconstructions

  1. hugh paxton says:

    Great post! When I was in Warsaw it was hard to reconcile the city I was seeing with the images of rubble and damnation I’d seen in books.

    Rebuild and restore say I.

    And hug your history close. It enriches the present.



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