Six years ago I took my first trip to Europe. I was in Cologne, sitting in the municipal archive day after day. I was elated. I was lost.

Everywhere I went I saw posters of the cathedral. Not surprising, since its easy for a large gothic building to be the center of public life. Moreover, the image of the cathedral had been used for more than a century to comment on the state of Germany.

But the posters that I saw were not simply of the cathedral. They were taken in the days and weeks that followed the liberation of Cologne in March 1945. The city was leveled. The fact that the cathedral was still standing was considered a miracle. Perhaps it was the only miracle.

Cologne suffered more aerial raids than any other German city: it was the largest and closest city to the allied bases in the west. It was also Nazism’s last stand on the left bank: the army refused to pull out until the last moment, staying longer than they would in any other Rhenish city, endangering the citizens unnecessarily. The results were astounding. Cologne was almost unlivable. When Konrad Adenauer returned to the city after thirteen years of exile, he was astounded by the damage:

More than half of the houses and public buildings were totally destroyed, nearly all the others had suffered partial damage. Only 300 houses had escaped unscathed.

The damage done to the city by the destruction of the streets, tram rails, sewers, water pipes, gas pipes, electrical installations and other public utilities, was no less widespread. It is hard to realize the threat this constituted to the health of the people.

The bridges across the Rhine had been destroyed. There were mountains of rubble in the streets. Everywhere there were gigantic areas of debris from bombed and shelled buildings. With its razed churches, many of them almost a thousand years old, its bombed-out cathedral, with the ruins of once beautiful bridges sticking up out of the Rhine, and the vast expanses of derelict houses, Cologne was a ghost of a city.

People were living as best they could in the cellars of bombed houses. They did their cooking on primitive brick fire-places.

The great majority of people fled or were evacuated in the last months of the war. Now, after the end of hostilities in Germany, they came back [including those who had been deported] . Every day thousands of citizens streamed back into Cologne, on foot or whatever transport was available. I can still see those open freight cars, jammed with people who wanted to get home again, no matter what hardships were involved. Pale, tired, haggard, they carried the few belongings they still had, and usually found nothing but their destroyed homes.

The popularity of posters of the damaged Cologne might have reminded citizens of the new beginning that the liberation offered them. The Cologne I experienced had little of the German historicism or the Jugendstil architecture of other cities. The churches were restored. Otherwise it was entirely built in the postwar era. At least some of the damage was still visible: I could look across the street from one of my apartments to a building whose upper levels had not yet been demolished.

The image of the cathedral, surrounded by the rubble, was also a reminder that the past — the mythic past of German nationalism — was irretrievable. What was left behind was the city made by the empire; what remained was the medieval city and its faith.

Part II coming soon