This year, while Berliners celebrate our city’s 775th birthday, the Brits are commemorating its destruction. In June Queen Elizabeth unveiled London’s new Bomber Control Memorial, a grandiose temple dedicated to the British airmen who laid waste to German cities.
The memorial notes the airmen’s sacrifices (half were killed or taken prisoner), but their ‘achievements’ are a mixed bag. They crippled Germany’s war-making machine, but also killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and left millions homeless.
At the time, British Air Marshall Arthur Tedder recommended leaving Berlin in ruins as a reminder of the follies of war. Defiant Berliners ignored his advice. Still, the modern Berlin we know and love was largely shaped by those World War II bombers.
For some, the vast stretches of flattened city were a blank canvas. Hitler reportedly welcomed the bombing as free demolition work for his new World Capital Germania. Post-war designers produced their own experiments in city planning. In the East: Karl-Marx-Allee, Alexanderplatz with its TV tower and the Marx-Engels Forum park. In the West: Europa Center, the Spree-side government quarter and the Hansaviertel housing district. Relatively intact streets were left with ‘missing teeth’ that gave light and air to the dense urban fabric.
Once everywhere, war-damaged buildings have become a rare species. The jagged remains of the 1895 Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church were the symbol of Cold War West Berlin. The bomb-mangled skeleton of Anhalter Bahnhof was demolished in 1959, but a fragment of the train station’s elegant façade is still standing. Berlin’s Natural History Museum advertised its bomb-damaged south wing as the city’s last war ruin – until they rebuilt it in 2010. The last unsanitised relic of the bombing may be Mitte’s now-empty arts center Tacheles.
Across Germany, survivors piled rubble to create artificial hills known as Trümmerberge. Berlin has eight, mostly located in the Volksparks. The largest is Teufelsberg or “Devil’s Mountain” in Grunewald. It’s the highest point in the city with the ruins of the former U.S. National Security Agency listening post on top.
Those Allied bombers not only flattened Berlin, they upended its social order. With their men either dead or in prison, the city’s stalwart Hausfrauen were drafted to the front lines to sift through rubble and stockpile raw materials needed to rebuild their city. In sharp contrast to London’s bomber memorial, those Trümmerfrauen, or “rubble women”, are honoured by a small, inconspicuous statue hidden away in Volkspark Hasenheide.
But women did more than clean up the boys’ mess – some, like architect Hilde Weström, played a big role in rebuilding and re-inventing post-war Berlin.
A new exhibition at the Berlinische Gallerie celebrates Weström’s life, career and 100th birthday. The title says it all: Die zerstörte Stadt war meine Chance – “The Destroyed City Was My Opportunity.” A quiet revolutionary, Weström filled West Berlin’s bombed-out lots with Bauhaus-inspired apartments that put the needs of women and family first.
As part of the 1957 City of Tomorrow exhibition, she designed a kitchen that set new standards for modern living. Weström retired in 1981 and now lives in Tiergarten’s Haus Christophorus, a seniors’ residence she designed herself.
The WWII bombers branded Berlin as the city that survives, rises from the ashes and reinvents itself. Without ruins and empty lots, the city loses a central part of its identity. It’s almost enough to give post-apocalyptic devastation a rosy glow. But before you get too nostalgic, consider this: we’re still sitting on thousands of WWII bombs. Of the 465,000 tons of explosives dumped on Berlin, experts believe at least one in eight didn’t explode. They lie under buildings, streets and parks.
In August, Munich had a wartime flashback when demolition workers unearthed a 250kg WWII bomb – and blew it up. A massive explosion rocked the city center. Windows were blown out, fires spread – and it could have been worse.
The bombs delivered by those Allied airmen are a grim gift that keeps on giving.
The exhibition Die Zerstörte Stadt war Meine Chance about architect Hilde Weström is at the Berlinische Gallerie until February 25, 2013.