Why did Germany rebuild its cities as it did, with such unrelenting modernism? This question keeps resurfacing as cities decide to replace buildings from the postwar era with those that reflect earlier historical eras. I’ve found this but of nostalgia problematic, failing to appreciate the lacuna caused by the Second World War. Hermann Glaser’s The Rubble Years: The Cultural Roots of Postwar Germany, 1945-1948 puts some of these issues into perspective, mining the brief moment immediately following the war.

In light of the devastation of the war, it was estimated that 6.5 million apartments were needed. “Rebuilding? Technologically, financially impossible, I tell you. What do I say? Psychologically impossible! However, it is possible to build simple rooms on the present foundations and out of salvageable debris . . . bright rooms in which a simple law, equal and understandable for all, is discussed and decided upon . . . no small print . . . no embellishment. Rise, up, lawyers and architects! Plan and design models, rooms of pure, simple clarity and power . . . rooms in which our children and grand- children can follow honorably and freely the universally accepted law!” This Passage Comes from Otto Bartning’s Ketzerische Gedanken am Rande der Trümmerhaufen (Heretical Thoughts at the Edge of the Rubble Heaps), which characterizes the mood of the survivors who experienced, after a total war, total defeat. The dominant mood was one of despair, pessimism, and resignation. In almost every city, however, people began to work on restoration plans based on more optimistic premises

The mood in postwar Germany was understandably dismal. People returned home to find literally nothing. The question of how to continue to live was inextricable linked to the question of where to live. Moreover, Germans were uncertain of their national future, having values shattered in a few years. Perhaps it is obvious that the new architectural style would reflect necessity and humility. Modernism seemed to answer the spiritual need to create distance with the past and repent for it.

In [Walter Gropius’s] lectures, he re-installed the idea of the ‘Bauhaus’ … .The socially conscious architecture, once expelled from Germany, was brought back to a bewildered Germany as a symbol of freedom and individuality by one its most prominent representatives. The modern architecture was supposed to represent and mirror the honesty, transparency, and openness of the young country. Its light, eager, liberal, and international style was completely focused on the Progress of technology and civilization, and expressed the social and utopian ideal of equal housing. It was opposed to provincialism, folkishness, monumentalism, and historism, especially since National Socialism favored these forms of architecture.

All cities took the opportunity to reform their urban plans, simplify streets and utilities, etc. The question to rebuild what had been destroyed or build anew was up in the air. Different cities took different tacts. But references to eras past would not necessarily succeed in expressing a new democratic age in Germany. On the one hand, democracy was not triumphant: it was prescriptive. On the other, the styles that normally represented democratic institutions–Hellenic and Roman–had already been exhausted by German historicism. Rather than democracy, the represented beauty and spirit, ideas that had lost credibility to a public that had mentally checked out. Gothic, which might have connected Germany to the past of urban republics, had been swept up by Romanticism. If remembering was painful, history provided no solace. If the past were a source of symbols, the war made them unavailable.  Modern architecture was far from being insensitive to the needs of the people.  It addressed those needs directly.

Would contemporary Germans recognize this wisdom in their postwar ancestors? The pursuit of unity seems to extend to history as well as geography and demography, seeking out a continuous history of the German people, if not nation. But as I have said before, modernism treats space as disposable, thus modernism is itself disposable.

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