If there is one city more strongly associated with National Socialism than Munich, it is Nuremberg. For it was here that the Nazis had their infamous rallies, and also here that the Nazi leaders were tried and convicted after the war. But even without these epochal events, the city would be worth visiting, for it has the same charming combination of an attractive city center and a Bavarian beer culture that makes Munich so popular. And as the second-biggest city in Bavaria, after Munich itself, Nuremberg has quite a lot to see.
When I arrived in Nuremberg I was in a sour mood. I was coming to the city from Prague (a place for another post), and had very thoughtfully planned the trip by buying a bus ticket beforehand. But I failed to take into account that the metro runs more slowly on Sundays; and so my trip took ten fatal minutes more than planned, and I arrived at the station just as the bus was pulling away. Thus I had to buy a ticket for the next bus, which cost twice as much as the one I already had and which lost me two precious hours in Nuremberg. Admittedly this is not very important; but I hate wasting money and I felt like a fool for not giving myself more time to get to the bus.
But my ill temper was soon alleviated as I walked around the center of Nuremberg. This was my first trip with my new camera, a Canon Rebel T6—all my photography before having been with my phone—so I eagerly marched through the city, snapping photos like a maniac of anything and everything that caught my eye. And this was quite a lot of things, since the old center of Nuremberg is a handsome place.
Like Munich, Berlin, and so many German cities, Nuremberg’s original old center was sadly bombed out of existence during the Second World War. The ability to aim bombs back then was rudimentary at best; and in any case I do not think the Allied bombers were apt to be very careful, since one of their goals was to demoralize the population. I do not know whether or not it would have significantly impeded the war effort to have tried to avoid destroying these historic cities, but still I find it sad that so much great architecture went up in flames and was reduced to rubble. War and art are perpetual enemies. Lucky for us, however, the people of Nuremberg reconstructed their historic city after the war; and if not perfectly replicated, the result is still very fine.
Nuremberg has historically been a walled city; and the old center still stands behind high walls, lookout towers, and an old moat that has been converted into a park. Nuremberg’s central square is the Hauptmarkt, which in December is home of a Christmas market, and all year long has stalls selling fruits, vegetables, sweets, preserves, and other delicacies. The square is presided over by the noble Frauenkirche (“Church of Our Lady”), a brick gothic structure whose stepping roof leads up to a central clock, under which the Holy Roman Emperor sits enthroned in a golden robe, surrounded by counselors. The church is rather unusual in having a balcony above its front portal. This was originally because the Holy Roman Emperors wanted to use the church for ceremonial functions. Nowadays it is used to give the opening speech of the Christkindlesmarkt.
In the center of the Hauptmarkt is the Schöner Brunnen (“beautiful fountain”), whose tall, golden, gothic spire juts into the air, decorated with statues representing the liberal arts, the church fathers, and other political and religious figures important to the Holy Roman Empire. The fountain is aptly named.
Right next to this central square is the river Pegnitz, which runs right through the center of the city, and whose calm surface is never free of a couple loafing ducks. From the city’s well-preserved Fleishbrücke (literally, “meat bridge”)—a lovely Renaissance bridge that escaped the bombs—you can see the Heilig-Geist-Spital (Holy Ghost Hospital), a pretty building that extends out into the river, supported by two arches. Built in 1399, it long served its medical function, in addition to being a kind of old folks’ home and, from 1424 to 1796, the depository of the imperial jewels. Originally there was a church attached to the building, but the bombs destroyed it in 1945 and it wasn’t rebuilt. But there is a nice restaurant there nowadays, apparently.
The most magnificent church in Nuremberg is, without doubt, the Lorenzkirche, or St. Lorenz Church. This is a Lutheran church which was another casualty of the world war, not destroyed but badly damaged. But it has been restored magnificently. The imposing gothic façade gives way to an equally impressive interior, whose vaulting, statues, and stained glass form a harmoniously somber whole. Standing on the other side of the old town is the almost equally majestic Sebalduskirche, which has the same curiously hunchbacked profile as the Lorenzkirche. This distinctive shape resulted, I believe, from converting an older cruciform church into a larger gothic building, raising the side aisles and adding an ambulatory in the back. In any case, it is another damaged and well-restored structure, which preserves the original shrine of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg’s patron saint. (I was under the impression that Lutherans don’t have shrines to saints, but apparently I was wrong.)
Presiding over the northern edge of the old city, perched like an enormous eagle on a hill that overlooks the town, is the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg (Kaiserburg Nürnberg). This castle was extensively used by the Holy Roman Emperors, making Nuremberg a sort of unofficial capital of the empire. (This association with the Holy Roman Empire, which Hitler retroactively named the “First Reich,” is one reason why he chose to have his rallies here.) Like everything else, the castle was badly damaged during the war, but has been repaired beautifully; its brown buildings and rust-colored roofs fit in perfectly with the city’s aesthetic.
Walking towards the castle, you may come upon the attractive Tiergärtnerplatz, a plaza surrounded by pretty buildings and, in good weather, full of beer drinkers sitting on the pavement. Nearby is the historic Albrecht Dürer Haus, where the famous painter lived from 1509 until his death. It is a typical municipal dwelling, with a sandstone bottom and a timber-framed top, and houses a museum dedicated to the artist. If you continue from this square up the hill into the castle, you will be rewarded with an excellent view of the city, spread out before you like a dinner table.
Feeling ravenous at this point, I went off to find dinner. For this I went to Som Tam Siam Food, a Thai restaurant in the north of the city that I found online. You may think it’s silly to eat Thai food on a trip to Germany, but it was delicious and cheap, and I didn’t regret a thing. To be fair, the next day I tried the culinary specialty of Nuremberg, which are its bratwurst—greasy, juicy, meaty, delicious sausage. I also treated myself to a German pretzel, which are buttery and rich, much better than the pretzels that are sold on the streets of New York. But I have to admit the Thai food was my favorite; I went back the next day.
It is worth taking a stroll from the city center to one of Nuremberg’s cemeteries, the Johannisfriedhof. In my travels I have discovered that there is a great variety in cemetery design. In Spain, France, Ireland, the United States, and Germany, they all have a distinctive look. The Johannisfriedhof is a lovely open space filled with stone sarcophagi, filled with flowers, ferns, and trees. Like many cemeteries, it is a solemn and silent place, mostly empty, and full of benches to sit and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Its most famous inhabitant is Nuremberg’s most famous son, Albrecht Dürer, widely regarded as the greatest of German artists, in a league with the best Renaissance painters for his brilliance. I sadly missed the opportunity to see his iconic Self-Portait at 28, which is in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, yet another of my traveler’s regrets. The artist’s grave is modest and plain, blending in with those surrounding him. His best friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, of whom Dürer made many portraits, is also buried in this cemetery.
My last stop in the city center was the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. It was founded during the eighteenth-century upsurge in cultural interest, and has since grown into a massive institution—Germany’s largest museum of cultural history. I visited on my last day in Nuremberg, when I only had a few hours to explore before going to the airport. This was not nearly enough time to properly see everything—or anything—but how much time is enough will depend, of course, on the visitor’s tastes.
The museum building itself is a sort of artifact, having been converted from an old monastery, like the Musée des Augustines in Toulouse. The lovely old cloisters and church are preserved and stocked with statues, most notably by the local gothic sculptor Adam Kraft. From there the museum seems to expand in every direction. There is a sizable collection of prehistoric and ancient artifacts, including Roman military equipment. One large hall is dedicated to fashion—and walking past so many oddly-dressed mannequins is a little creepy. Directly below is the museum’s impressive exhibition of antique instruments, showing viol de gambas, ornate pianos, obsolete reed instruments, and much more.
In five minutes you can go from the pious passion of gothic painting to the stylish precision of scientific instruments. Among these, the most famous is Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel (“earth apple”), the earliest surviving globe. The map is difficult to read now, discolored and faded with age; but it is obvious that the Americas are not included, since it was made in 1490-92, before Christopher Columbus returned from his voyage in 1493. (This, by the way, is yet another proof that people back then already knew the earth was round.) Leaving no stone unturned, the museum also has a substantial collection of paintings from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Enlightenment periods. This includes Dürer’s imaginary portrait of Charlemagne, a famous miniature portrait of Martin Luther, and several works by Rembrandt. But the museum is impressive for the range and depth of its collections rather than outstanding specimens, though it has its fair number of these too. The place is worth as much time as you care to spend in it.
As everybody knows, Nuremberg’s reputation as a seat of imperial power and the home of the German Renaissance’s most famous representative, Albrecht Dürer, was considerably darkened in the twentieth century. Nowadays it is nearly impossible for most outsiders to think of Nuremberg without immediately thinking of the Nazis. Far from trying to cover up this association, the people of Nuremberg have admirably opened two excellent exhibitions about this dark era, the first at the former rally grounds, the second at the courthouse where the Nazi leaders were put on trial. Because both are on site, they are situated a little far from the center; but they are well worth visiting.
The documentation center at the rally grounds has been built into its largest preserved structure, the Congress Hall. This is a semicircular arena, loosely based on the Coliseum, that could hold 50,000 party members. The documentation center’s metallic exterior seems to spear through the older stone building, creating a visual pun on the name of Albert Speer, the chief Nazi architect. Opened in 2001, the center is designed to explain the rise of Hitler’s party and the part that the Nuremberg rallies played in that story. The ticket automatically comes with an audioguide, which is good, since all of the text in the museum is in German so you have little choice but to listen. The exhibitions are organized by chronology and theme, taking the visitor through the early days of National Socialism, the Beer Hall Putsch and the writing of Mein Kampf, and on to their rise to power—including much else along the way: their ideology and rituals, their organization and methods of control, their use of propaganda and pageantry, and so on. Though there are plenty of photos, the main substance of the exhibit consists in this self-guided tour, making the experience of visit somewhat like listening to an audiobook—though a very good one.
Since I had recently read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a lot of the information was not new to me. The explanations of the actual rituals were, however, new and fascinating. As in my visit to Berlin’s Topography of Terror, what most struck me about the Nazi party was the degree to which its organization, rituals, and ethos of manliness were reminiscent of the Boy Scouts. By this I do not intend to insult boy scouts; rather, mean that, in its rituals and architecture, these rallies were like nightmare versions of boyish fantasies. Propaganda films show grown men roughhousing, partaking in good clean fun, exercising with their mates, laughing and singing songs together, and demonstrating their manly martial prowess in mock battles. The melodramatic gravity of the rituals reminds me of a children’s game, aping the movements and motions of real solemnity while missing their substance. The architecture consists of shallow imitations of classical structures or medieval fortresses; and you get the impression that, like so many boys, they were imagining themselves in an ancient time, in an epoch of emperors and knights and Crusades.
But clearly the rallies were effective. Indeed, during their tenure in power the Nazis proved themselves to be geniuses of propaganda. The rallies’ tight choreography and grand orchestration showcased the dazzling efficiency of the German army. Their massive marches and endless parades reinforced the image of German might. The mixture of military and religious rituals created an effective blend of awe and aggression. The free use of symbols from the past—the ancient Romans, the church, the Holy Roman Empire—impressed on the German people the idea that they were following in the footsteps of illustrious ancestors and fulfilling their destiny. The total coordination of myth, pageantry, rhetoric, and spectacle created a hermetically sealed whole, a cultural space where beauty, truth, and goodness were the party line, and the attendee just a passionate part of a glorious movement. The ability to inspire had never been so abused.
These were the lessons I learned from my visit to the documentation center and a short walk around the remaining buildings. It is a sobering experience.
Somewhat more uplifting is a visit to the Nuremberg Trial courtroom. The room is in the monumental Palace of Justice, Nuremberg’s court building on the other side of town from the Documentation Center. Nuremberg was chosen as the site of the trials partly for the city’s association with Nazism, and also because the Palace of Justice has a sizable adjoining prison. After entering through a side door of the building, paying the entrance fee, and ascending some stairs, the visitor is confronted with Courtroom 600, where the trial actually took place. My first impression was that it was much smaller than I expected, indeed hardly bigger than a civil courtroom I had seen in New York. Admittedly the courtroom is now significantly smaller than it was during the trial, since the back wall was at that time removed to allow for a double-decker gallery of onlookers and reporters.
Even so, it was a small stage on which to create history. For into this modest room there presided judges from the four allied powers (one main and one alternative for each, making eight); a bank of interpreters simultaneously translated between the four official languages (Russian, French, German, and English); prosecutors from every Allied power; defense attorneys for all the 24 accused; the accused themselves; a witness stand; guards, clerks, and amanuenses; and then the press, with cameras and notepads. It must have been very crowded. Standing in that room, I felt that strange mixture of disappointment and awe that historical places create—in this case, disappointment that it is an ordinary courtroom, awe that such normal surroundings could have been host to such a world-changing event. But history does not always leave an obvious mark; and the courtroom—which is still occasionally used—looks clean and polished.
Up another flight of stairs is the main exhibition, which has only been open since 2010. As in the rally grounds, here the visit consists of an audioguide and lots of panels. Really, the amount of information on display is overwhelming; to listen to all of it, one would need two hours at least. But it is good information, giving some idea of the leadup and consequences of the trial, but mainly focusing on the trial itself—its legal bases, its personalities, its progress. The audioguide takes an uncompromising pro-trial stance, which is somewhat surprising, given that they were often seen within Germany as an example of “victor’s justice.” For it hardly seems like a recipe for fairness that the victors to put the leaders of an enemy country on trial. And anyone must admit that the victor’s hands were hardly clean. The most extreme case are the Soviets, who had their own mass killings, invasions, and wars of aggression; but none of the Allies were beyond reproach: many French collaborated, the English appeasement strategy aided Germany’s rise, and America’s bombing of Dresden is nefarious.
Even granting all this, I still think that the Nuremberg Trials were a step forward in the bumbling progress of our species. The victorious powers could simply have shot the Nazis without due process, or have submitted them to a shallow show-trial. It is rather remarkable that we didn’t. As Robert H. Jackson said in his opening speech: “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.” The trial set new precedents for international law—defining war crimes and crimes against humanity—which served as a model for similar trials ever since, such as those in the wake of the Rwandan massacre or the Balkan Wars. And the trials were instrumental in uncovering the horrible truth of the Nazi atrocities and the full extent of their culpability, since the prosecutors were determined to convict the defendants using their own documents.
If the Nuremberg trials were a victory for Reason, that the city most associated with Nazism could be home to two thorough and honest exhibitions about the history of their crimes is yet another.