The Beauty and Infamy of Nuremberg

Until the Second World War, Nuremberg was considered one of the finest medieval cities in Germany with streets full of typical timber-framed houses adorned with beautifully embellished gables. In some commentaries I’ve read, it was described as a “large fairy-tale city” prior to the 1930’s.

Starting in 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party held their annual rallies at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg. The Party selected Nuremberg for pragmatic reasons: it was in the geographic center of the German Reich, and the local parkland was well suited as a venue. In addition, the Nazis could rely on the well-organized local branch of the party in Franconia (Franconia is a region within the state of Bavaria, and Nuremberg is considered its unofficial capital). The Nuremberg police were also sympathetic to the event.

These rallies were commemorated in many films including Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”, and “The Victory of Faith”.

Later, the selection of Nuremberg was justified by the Nazi Party by putting it into the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, considered the First Reich. From 1934 to 1938, the rallies took place near the time of the fall equinox (September 23rd), under the title of “The German people’s National Party days”, which was intended to symbolize the solidarity between the German people and the Nazi Party. This point was further emphasized by the yearly growing number of participants, which finally reached almost 700,000 from all sections of the party, the army, and the state.

Given its importance to Hitler and the Nazi party, Nuremberg was a favored point of attack for allied bombers in World War II and on January 2nd, 1945, more than 500 British Bombers dropped 6,000 high-explosive bombs and over one million incendiary devices on the city.

Nuremberg’s old town was almost completely destroyed, and the city as a whole was badly damaged. After Wurzburg, which we would visit later in our trip, Nuremberg was one of the most destroyed and heavily damaged cities in Germany.

The brief commentary above was part of the historical backgrounder we had been given on Nuremberg as we prepared for our arrival in the city, and shortly after 1 PM on Wednesday, July 10th, the Viking Lif settled into the docks at Roth, Germany (25 kilometres south of Nuremberg). From there we disembarked for a four hour excursion entitled “Nuremberg Through History”.

Ironically, the first landmark we encountered on our approach to the city had nothing to do with Nuremberg’s medieval history or its unfortunate role in World War II. Rather, it was a celebration of the manufacturing centre that Nuremberg is today – in the form of a giant chair outside the XXX Lutz Shopping Mall. It is claimed to be the largest chair in the world, although those “bragging rights” are in dispute from several corners of the globe.

Not long after, the tour bus slowed to a halt, and our guide drew our attention to a huge building that resembled the Colosseum in Rome. This was the Nazi Congress Hall that Hitler had commissioned in 1935, and it marked the entrance to the rally grounds seen in the news photo at the beginning of this blog. The Congress Hall is the largest preserved monumental building dating back to Nazi Germany during World War II, and as the bus slowly entered the interior, I was once again overcome with feelings of anxiety and horror.

This building was intended to be Hitler’s crowning masterpiece, or as he liked to call it “my private temple”, a 50,000 seat arena with walls rising 128 feet high, reserved for special occasions at his beck and call….. but it was never finished.

Since 2001, the Congress Hall has housed a documentation centre with a permanent exhibition called “fascination and terror”, and it graphically tells the story of the rise of and terror of the Third Reich.

The aerial photograph below gives you a better sense of the size and scope of the structure.

It should be noted that the arena area of the Congress Hall has been left in a state of disrepair and is now only used for parking during major events on the surrounding grounds. The arena has “heavy” security provided by the city so that in the words of our guide “neo-nazis” can never gain access to it or get any ideas”. He also told us that Nazi history is intensely taught in schools to make sure that history never repeats itself.

Leaving the Congress Hall behind, our bus tour began to move toward the centre of the city, and along the way, we passed the Palace of Justice (seen below). While today it serves as a regional court house, between 1945 and 1949, it was the location of the Nuremberg trials, where surviving German war criminals were tried and sentenced to either death or life imprisonment.

The Palace of Justice was chosen as the site of the trials because it was almost undamaged by the bombing raids, offered sufficient space, and included a large prison complex. The choice of Nuremberg was also symbolic as the Nazis had held large rallies in the city. In a sense, it could have been thought of as the birthplace of the Nazi Party, and it would also be where the Party would meet its end.

The motorized part of our tour came to an end as our coach pulled up in front of the Imperial Palace, considered one of Europe’s most formidable fortresses. Before entering, our guide told us that Nuremberg (Norenberc), was mentioned for the first time in an official document in the year 1050, and it was in and around that time the Emperor Heinrich III built the first fortress on the highest point of land in the city. It was given the name Kaiserburg which literally translates to “Imperial Castle”.

As we made our way up the incline to the castle entrance, the guide pointed out that in addition to the steep climb, the ramp leading upward was also significantly curved (see below). This was done intentionally so as to make it difficult for anyone to get up a head a steam before trying to ram the gates.

Once we passed through the arched doorway in the picture above, we found ourselves in a long uphill passageway that led to an “outer courtyard”. At this point we were actually still outside the walls of the Imperial Castle itself, and we stood in front of the only structure that remains from the original residences known as Burgrave’s Castle. The pentagonal tower in the picture below dates back to late 12th century when the Burgraves (some of the first officials of the imperial court) lived here.

Standing in the forecourt of the Imperial Castle, we were afforded some spectacular views of the city. The panoramic picture below features a look across the rooftops of Nuremberg’s old town, a mix of buildings that survived the massive bombing raids of World War II, and those that were rebuilt in a similar style so as to regain the look of the medieval city.

In the next picture below, I used a telephoto lens to take this long-distance shot of the Nazi Congress Hall. You can see how it dominates the landscape, and that is exactly what Hitler had in mind when he ordered its’ construction.

After a nice pause where we soaked up the Nuremberg scenery (and a few people caught their breath from the climb up into the castle), we passed through an archway into the inner courtyard of the palace. Pictured below is the Sinwell Tower (sinwel = round), the original “keep” of the castle. The lower part dates back to the 12th century and is an original structure, however the upper part wasn’t added until around 1560.

We were somewhat limited as to what and where we could visit beyond the inner courtyard, as there was an event going on inside the castle, and as you can see from the picture below, there were also some renovations underway.

The tall tower with the flag atop is known as the “Heathen’s tower”, a nickname given to it as a result of heathen idols, sculptures and paintings being removed in advance of a visit by Emperor Charles V in the 1500’s.

Directly behind it is the “Twin or Double Chapel” (you can clearly see one of the two orbs on the roof). From an architectural point-of-view it is considered the most important building within the castle. It was built around 1200, the same time as the original palace and it contains two chapels, one above the other. The top level is only accessible through an opening in the ceiling and the two separate floors are representative of the hierarchical levels in medieval society.

In the foreground of the picture above, there is a well house which is still operational to this day. It was originally a more open structure when first constructed in the mid-1500’s, but it was enclosed at a later date to provide privacy for the women who used it as bathing chamber.

Exiting the grounds of the Imperial Castle, we began a slow descent downhill into the old town of Nuremberg. Immediately on our left, we passed a building (see the picture below) that at one time served as the Imperial Stables. It was severely damaged in World War II, and was completely renovated and restored to resemble the original structure. Today is serves as a Youth Hostel………nice-looking digs for young travelers!

As we continued our descent, I paused and looked back up at the Sinwell Tower and the remains of the wall that once encircled the entire fortress.

I imagine the view from that tower would be pretty spectacular, but unfortunately we did not have time to explore it during our visit. I was still pretty knocked out by the views we did have.

Turning back toward the road leading into the old town, you can see by the long gentle slope, the Imperial Castle had really occupied a very sound and strategic spot overlooking the entire city.

Halfway down the road, our tour group gathered in front of one of the two main places of worship in Nuremberg – St. Sebaldus Church.

Construction of the church began in 1225, and it took 50 years to complete. There were many alterations to it in the centuries that followed and it has been a Lutheran-parish church since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The church suffered serious damage during World War II and was subsequently restored. Fortunately a great deal of the churches’ treasures survived the bombings and it remains an important point of worship for the people of Nuremberg.

Continuing south toward the main market (the Hauptmarkt), we passed by the Nuremberg City Hall which dates back to 1616-1622. Unfortunately, the original building, along with most of its treasures burned to the ground during heavy bombing in 1945, and it wasn’t until 1956 that re-construction began.

You might notice that there are three flags affixed to the front of the building above the main doors. The flag in the centre is the familliar flag of Germany. On either side of it are the flags of Bavaria (blue and white checks), and Franconia (red and white). Our guide pointed out that the flag of Franconia should not be present as it is not a state flag and not recognized by the Bavarian State parliament. However, the Lord Mayor of Nuremberg has opted to defy parliament and chosen to display it in honour of the Franconian heritage of the area.

Just a few short yards further down the hill, we arrived at the main market of Nuremberg, and we had also come to the end of our walking tour (hurray for free time).

This central meeting place is home to two of the more iconic landmarks of Nuremberg; the Beautiful Fountain, in the foreground of the picture below, (yes that is what it is really called), and the Church of our Lady (Frauenkirche).

The Beautiful Fountain is one of the oldest pipe-fed fountains in the city, and its origin dates back to the late 1300’s. There are forty different stone figures on four different levels that ascend from the base to the top of the fountain, and there is a ring of finely-wrought ironwork that surrounds the well. In the southeast corner of the ironwork, there is a gold-coloured ring worked into the wrought iron and it is movable. It is known as the “Wishing Ring”, and according to legend, the sculptor’s apprentice incorporated it into the ironwork without his master’s knowledge. It is said to fulfill the wishes of those who turn it, so Mary made sure to secure her portion of whatever good fortune the golden ring possesses.

The Church of Our Lady that towers above the Market Square was erected between 1350 and 1358 (it is remarkable to stand in the presence of buildings like this given how “young” North America is), but only the facade and portions of the side walls survived the air raids of 1945 intact.

Formerly a Protestant church, in 1816 when Nuremberg was absorbed into Bavaria, the Church of our Lady was gifted to the Catholic parishioners of the city. The most notable, and frankly remarkable feature of the church is the Männleinlaufen, a mechanical clock that commemorates the Golden Bull of 1356.

Installed around 1508. the clock mechanism is activated every day at noon, when a bell is rung to start the sequence followed by trumpeters and a drummer. There is then a procession of the electors around the seated figure of the Holy Emperor.

By the way, I had no idea what the Golden Bull of 1356 was and our guide mentioned it as if we should know all about it. I had to google it to learn that the Golden Bull of 1356 was a decree issued by Emperor Charles IV which fixed for a period of more than four hundred years, important aspects of the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire. It was named the Golden Bull for the golden seal it carried. So now you know in case that question comes up while you’re watching Jeopardy!

Less iconic, but certainly no less captivating was the intriguing? statue in the picture below.

Named the “Ship of Fools”, this bronze statue of a boat carrying seven people, a skeleton, and a dog is planted just off to the left of the Beautiful Fountain and as I said, it is hard to ignore. It is based on a popular sixteenth-century book by Sebastian Brant, and it shows an expelled Adam and Eve, their murderous son Cain, and other violent figures. It is a scene showing the destruction of the world. Gloomy? Creepy? Disturbing? or just plain bizarre. We couldn’t decide.

While many of our fellow passengers ventured off to shop and/or explore some of the side streets that flowed in and out of the main market square, Mary and I opted for a visit to the Wicklein Lebkuchen, a 400-year-old company that makes the most delicious gingerbread confections.

The Lebkuchen cookies are crazy-good, and the store offered varieties ranging in taste from spicy to sweet. They were prepared with all sorts of different ingredients including honey and spices such as coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamon, and allspice. Oh, and then there were those containing almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts, and my personal favorite, candied fruit. To top things off, you could get them iced, glazed with chocolate, or just simply un-coated.

The cookies were so good we knew we had to have some to nosh on during our trip, as well as to bring back home, so, after indulging ourselves at the Wicklein shop, we meandered over to one of the stalls in the market square. By the way, I should have mentioned this earlier but there is an open market every day in the Hauptmarkt and it is also home to the Nuremberg Christmas market, that attracts more than 2 million visitors every year!

Pictured below is the stall we zeroed in on, and in the pictures immediately below it, you can see some of the souvenir tins that were available for purchase, as well as the different bags of cookies you could buy to “stuff” into the tin of your choice. We bought a decorative tin, and several bags in a variety of different flavours.

As we made our way back to the bus, Mary and I talked about how this had been a day of really mixed emotions.

It had begun with a visit to places where some of the darkest days and infamous events surrounding World War II had occurred. In the middle of our excursion, we had a chance to stroll through parts of the city that had been spared or rebuilt, giving us a vivid sense of how Nuremberg had once looked. Then, it had ended with a delightful hour of delicious treats in the main market, located in the heart of a beautiful city that has risen from the ashes of some of the heaviest bombing seen anywhere in Germany.

As our bus crossed a bridge over the Danube, we saw that the Viking Lif had made its way from Roth (where we had been dropped off earlier in the day), to its now-anchored spot just outside of Nuremberg, and shortly after 6:30, the ship began to move toward our next destination, Bamberg.

At Program Director Leonards’ nightly Port Talk, we heard that ships traveling from Amsterdam to Budapest (the opposite direction in which we were going) had been forced to stop earlier in the day, and were in the process of transferring passengers down river by bus. Once again, we were grateful for the skill and dare I say “balls” of Captain Anne, who had managed to get us past the low-water trouble spots on the Danube, and we were now free and clear to continue our cruise.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Barb Higgs says:

    Great blog about Nuremburgh. It is a place that I would certainly love to visit some day. My interest in things related to WWll is huge and one of these days I will indulge it. Sounds like your day started with horror and ended with pleasure. A perfect sequence.


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