Nuremberg was once one of the wealthiest and most important trading centres in medieval Europe. And between 1050 and 1571, it was the closest thing to a capital under the Holy Roman Empire, seat of the imperial Diet.
Despite this rich and multilayered past, the city is most persistently remembered for its close association with the Nazi party.
It was Nuremberg that hosted the NSDAP rallies of the 1930’s.
I’m sure you’ve seen the footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will. Uniformed troops march through the streets as crowds cheer from their windows. The Zeppelin field is filled with rank after rank of soldiers standing in close formation, as far as the eye can see. And Hitler takes the podium on the Zeppelintribüne, haranguing the crowd, ranting and mesmerizing them:
Enormous swastika banners are stretched out behind him. And his architect Albert Speer has created an eerie “cathedral of light” — with anti-aircraft spotlights shining columns of light into the sky — a glow that could reportedly be seen from as far away as Prague.
It is as deeply disturbing today as it must have been during the slow, relentless buildup to war.
Hitler chose Nuremberg for the site of these rallies because of its medieval past. It lent his movement credibility to be associated with this most German of cities. This connection was so strong that it still overshadows the Nazi’s link to Munich, where the movement actually began.
If you’re in Nuremberg and want to know more about this dark period, I suggest a visit to the Documentation Centre at the site of the Nazi Party rally grounds. It’s housed in the colossal building that was supposed to be the Nazi party Kongresshalle — one of the largest Third Reich buildings still in existence.
It has all the typical bombast of Nazi architecture, with its scale designed to crush the individual, to intimidate, and to act as a heavy stone reminder of the overwhelming weight of the State.
The design of the Kongresshalle’s outer facade was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, but built in a “U”-shape with two buildings closing off the flat end. The space was designed to hold 50,000 people who would sit or stand, rapt with attention, and listen to the droning speeches of the Führer.
I couldn’t imagine a worse way to spend a weekend. But the war happened a little earlier than expected, and the Kongresshalle was never finished.
The Documentation Centre occupies a small corner of this massive structure. It focuses on the role of Nuremberg in the rise of the Nazi party, the cult of the Führer, and the ritual and organization of the Nazi party rallies.
The rallies were first held in Nuremberg in 1927 and 1929, but the violence associated with them led to their banning by the Nuremberg city council. After the Nazis took power in 1933, the party rally in Nuremberg became an annual event.
The scale of these events was enormous, carefully designed to stir the emotions while blunting the intellect, and staged with such careful uniformity that any remaining individualism would be swallowed up by the chanting of the regimented crowds.
If you want to get a sense of what these chilling events looked like, go on youtube and search for Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary film Triumph of the Will, which depicts the 1934 rally.
One year after those events, the 1935 Nazi party rally culminated in the passage of the Nuremberg Race Laws, which institutionalized the racial theories embedded in Nazi ideology and deprived Jews of most political rights.
After working our way through the exhibit, we walked around the outside of the Kongresshalle and down the Grosse Strasse, a 2km stretch of paved road that once formed a geographical and symbolic axis with the city’s Kaiserburg.
As the skies went dark and thunder rumbled in the distance, I imagined that 130-ft wide avenue filled with the relentless stamp of marching columns, and the deep diesel rumble and clanking of tanks. Today, this ceremonial stretch of road serves as a car park for the nearby exhibition hall.
Where the Grosse Strasse met the edge of the lake, we turned left down a wooded path, pausing to look at the sheer grey bulk of the Kongreshalle and the reflection it cast in these dark waters, as we made our way to the Zeppelin field.
The Zeppelin field got its name because Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin landed one of his airships there in 1909. When the Nazi party took over this space, Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, built a massive grandstand based on the design of the Pergamon Altar. It was from high atop that grandstand that Hitler addressed the masses.
The centre section of the grandstand is still intact, though the long row of pillars was removed in the 1970’s for safety reasons. The massive stone swastika that used to sit on top of the main section was blown up in 1945, right after the war:
I climbed the steps of the platform and made my way to the very same spot where Hitler stood. I wanted to get a sense of the scale of the place, something that’s difficult to do when looking at historical images.
I needed to imagine the menace of that enormous parade ground — a space equivalent to 12 football pitches — filled with the anonymous faces of soldiers contorted into expressions of rage.
Today this space is filled with the circular track of an athletic club. Children play football in the midst of one grassy space, and street hockey players have taken over the pavement at the foot of the pedestal. But the echoes remain, and I can still hear them in parts of Europe in the summer of 2018. Are we seeing the early stages of a resurgence of nationalism? Visiting a site like the Zeppelin field serves as a clear reminder of why we must take those voices seriously.
Afterwards, we wandered Nuremberg’s old town, stopping for an excellent ice cream and coffee, and spending a little time inside the wonderful Lorenzkirche.
I loved the layers of history and architecture in the centre of the city, but everything was overshadowed by the 20th century, and by the darkest period of Germany’s — and humanity’s — collective past.
It was a very long day. My only regret was that we didn’t get a chance to see the courtroom where the post-WWII Nuremberg trials took place.