Nuremberg/Cologne: In Hitler’s shadow
Our Avalon Waterways cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam included a number of optional tours. This post is about two of the options we chose. Its hard to visit Germany without confronting its Nazi past. Its a history which is very much at the forefront of people’s minds in the new Germany. You could be forgiven for thinking that German President Angela Merkel’s offer to open her country’s borders so freely to Syria’s refugees was in part a measure of atonement for her nation’s past sins. They are sins that young Germans are ready and willing to confront. They will not sweep the dark days of Nazism aside but rather hold them out for all to see in the hope that history never repeats.
In Nuremberg we could have simply explored its beautiful old town, at least the part that survived wartime bombing, just twenty five per cent of the historic buildings are left. We chose instead to visit the places that were to have been among Hitler’s greatest architectural legacies.
It was a rare chilly day in Nuremberg. Dark, brooding clouds swept in and a light drizzle fell as we wandered over Hitler’s grand statement…..the Nuremberg Rally Grounds. Many will be familiar with German filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl’s, images of Hitler’s rallies there. The massed troops, facing the huge fluttering red and white flags bearing the black swastika of Nazi Germany and the column’s of Albert Speer’s monolithic arena. Speer took his inspiration from ancient classical buildings but made them much bigger to demonstrate power. Here Hitler’s propaganda machine was in full swing, complete with Wagnerian music and fiery oratory from the Furhrer himself. His rhetoric was simple, effective and appealed to the emotions. In Mein Kampf he wrote ‘ All propaganda must be popular, of low intellectual level. It must avoid excessive intellectual demands on the masses.’
Perception was everything. Apparently one of the reasons many of the mass parades were held at night so the beer bellies on the NAZI elite would be obscured. Hitler himself hired a body language expert to help him drive home his message.
The rally grounds are now barren and windswept, decaying. Weeds push their way up through the tarmac the stadium seating is crumbling, but that platform and the imposing doors from which the Fuhrer would emerge to deliver his rousing rhetoric are still there, an eerie reminder of the man.
This is not a place that’s maintained in any way. Its kept as a reminder of past horrors. They hold car races and rock concerts here now amidst the rubble. Once a year in May you can catch ‘Rock in the Park’ here.
To get a real insight into how Hitler stage-managed these mass rallies visit the Documentation Centre, above, housed in the Furhrer’s partially finished Congress Hall. A massive shaft of steel pierces the building, beginning at the new entrance and emerging into the congress arena itself. Its is a symbol of many things, of the strength of the Jewish people, the ability of truth to prevail, a sign that this is a place where you can see into the dark heart of Nazism. Hitler’s Congress Hall is a giant Colloseum like structure designed to seat fifty thousand people. The permanent exhibition there ‘Fascination and Terror’ explores Nazi party propaganda and the progression of Hitler’s reign of terror. It is fascinating. And thought provoking.
Further up the Rhine we tie up alongside Cologne.
We’re moored just fifteen minutes walk from the city’s beautiful Cathedral. Its Germany’s most visited building and is UNESCO World Heritage listed. Much of the city was destroyed in blanket bombing during World War 11 but the Cathedral survived as an important symbol of Germany’s ability to withstand the ravages of war. It is said to house the partial remains of the three kings who followed the star to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The relics are a big drawcard for pilgrims from throughout the world.
The precious relics housed in Cologne Cathedral (above)
It is in Cologne that we visit a stark building that housed the former Gestapo Headquarters.
The Gestapo or Secret Police, occupied the building for ten years from 1935 to 45. It is the largest regional memorial site in Germany for the victims of the Nazis and for many years after the war the horrors of what went on here were largely forgotten. It wasn’t until renovations were begun in the seventies that the true nature of the basement was revealed. It was here that many jewish prisoners were held for years on end, handwritten notes on the walls of their tiny cells, testament to their suffering. Those notes were hidden by filing cabinets in the intervening years and only discovered when they were secretly photographed and released to the media when renovations took place. They are a glimpse into the anguish and desperation of those incarcerated here. Towards the end of the war hundreds of people were executed in the building’s courtyard.
There were a number of school groups touring the building while we were there. The permanent exhibition here explores how the Nazis were able to seize power. It looks at propaganda, racism and genocide.
There are monuments to the victims of Nazi genocide in virtually every town we visited. Their memory lives on, a stark warning to future generations.