Wrzburg in Flames — 1945

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On March 16, 2005 Würzburg remembered the 60th anniversary of being turned into an inferno by the strategic bombing of experienced bomber Group Number 5, one of Royal Air Force’s most elite squadrons. Group 5 was considered the most precise and had already bombed the cities of Heilbronn, Darmstadt, Braunschweig, München und Kassel.

The attack took place at approximately 9:30 PM that night, with 236 planes over Würzburg while another 280 were heading for Nürnberg. According to the official statistics between 360,000 to 380,000 incendiary bombs were dropped in three waves, with 180 to 220 high-explosives bombs weighing 500 kg each, and an unknown quantity of Petrol Gelée cans thrown off the planes.

The city was a burning inferno by midnight, ablaze with a heat index of 1000 to 2000 degrees Celsius. The intensity of the heat and fire destroyed what bombs couldn’t. People were forced out of their cellars, flocking to the Main River as a place of refuge.

The official death count was totaled at about 5000 people. Of that over 3700 were women and children. Approximately 82 percent of living space was destroyed during the attack, 35 churches and almost all public buildings and cultural memorials. The city was transformed to rubble and ashes

Last summer I spent a few days in Würzburg while visiting a friend of mine, a fellow Texan. The city is situated on the Main River and surrounded by vineyards along its shores. On my first day there, we went downtown to visit the beautiful baroque garden of the Residence Palace. It was a hot summer day with the populace going about their business as usual. There were no signs of what happened 60 years ago.

Just as we made it to the garden entrance, a wedding party took pictures right in front of the old crown-bishop’s residence. A brass band was there, cheering on the newlyweds in their traditional Lederhosen and feathered hats. It all seemed so German.

I sat down on the Franconia-Fountain. Nestled right at the front of this majestic baroque building, it features the statues of Mathias Grünewald (Painter, ca. 1470—1528), Walther von der Vogelweide (Poet, 1170—1230), and Tilman Riemenschneider (Painter and Sculptor, 1460—1531). Three famous artists, whose names are connected to Würzburg through birth, death or through the effect of their work, surround the fountain in thoughtful poses. Their legendary works of art are still part of the city’s culture.

We walked through the cathedral and crossed the Alte Mainbrücke (the old Main bridge) with the statues of the Franconian Apostles. The Irish Bishop Kilian and his disciples Kolonat and Totnan evangelized the area after Rome fell. They died a martyr’s death in 689 AD; yet their work carried on in bringing Christianity to the Franken.

We decided to stop at a small café and sit outside under a big and shady umbrella. The city is still very pretty, but nothing like its previous splendor. It’s quite apparent which buildings were erected after the war. Since only six homes remained intact after the bombing, there was really nothing for the residents of Würzburg to go home to after the attack. They had to build anew.

People walked up and down the cobblestone streets that are only reserved for pedestrians and bike riders. Shops and bakeries were busy with their customers. Two old ladies idly chatted with each other as they passed our table. Tourists were heading for the cathedral for a picture and a tour. The scars from the past didn’t seem to exist as life continued in the streets of Würzburg.

At one time the city was a landmark of the Renaissance and Baroque period. The buildings constructed after the war look like square boxes made out of concrete — a standard post-war look seen in most cities that were bombed. Built in haste to accommodate new living space for the survivors, not much thought had been put into these structures. Most churches and historic buildings have been reconstructed and restored to their former beauty. But what about all those people who survived the war? It takes more than stone and paint to reconstruct their wounds.

On our way home we stopped at the war memorial museum. It’s a small room which explains some of the events that took place on March 16th. The heat and confines of the room, combined with all of the images and facts displayed on its walls and the small replica of the devastated city, were almost overwhelming.

Würzburg had seen a lot in its 1300 years of existence. There were revolts and peasant wars, witch burnings and squabbles between one prince and another. But I don’t think it had ever seen anything like what happened in 1945.

The loss of lives in WWII was gruesome. Over 60 million people died; 6 million Jews murdered in concentration camps, another 20 million deaths in Russia, over 4.5 million Poles, a million French, and unnumbered people of other nationalities lost their lives in Europe’s battle to conquer and to eliminate their enemy. Yet there are still disagreements over the exact number of deaths. Does another 5000 or 10,000 make a difference any more?

The citizens of Würzburg thought the worst was behind them. Dresden and Schweinfurt, with their machine factories, were already bombed. Rumors surfaced that the residents of Würzburg would be spared because it was said that Winston Churchill had studied in their city. None of these wishful thoughts prevented the attack. Air Marshall Sir Arthur Travers Harris believed, as did Winston Churchill, that German cities with a population of over 100,000 needed to be bombed in order to break the stamina of the German populace.

So the night sky rained fire and death on the city of Würzburg. Although the governor of the US military forces, Murray D. van Wagoner, suggested rebuilding the city at another location, the men and women of Würzburg wanted to rebuild their city in its original place. His intention of making the city a museum featuring its ruins as "the destruction of war" ended on May 1, 1945 when the mayor of Würzburg, Gustav Pinkenburg, called out to the citizens: "Würzburg is not dead, Würzburg must live, Würzburg must be erected again!"

Women called Trümmerfrauen (women of ruins) started to clean up their cities. The intense physical labor of cleaning up and rebuilding kept people too busy to think about too much beyond their immediate situation. Over two and a half million cubic meters of rubble were loaded onto boats that floated down the Main River to clean the broken pieces of the ruined city. However, once the excitement of rebuilding settled down, a new reality settled in.

Even as many cities in Germany commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII this year, the government and people still struggle with how to respond to their nation’s own past. Ever fearful of its past reputation and wanting to shed the stigma of its recent history, the path of political correct politics has led to a new internal economic and financial struggle with its highly developed welfare state.

As much as Germany has rebuilt and pulled herself out of the ashes, there is still a cloud of guilt and shame lurking in the consciousness of the population. Nobody has yet to come forth and absolve Germany of her sins of WWII, least of all the Germans people themselves.

In AD 680 a foreign bishop traveled from Ireland to Würzburg and converted her leaders to an ancient faith that re-introduced moral codes and civil conduct. Their message spread and took root in the land and the lives of people who nurtured a flourishing culture of learning the arts of science, poetry, art and music. The three artist on the fountain attest to that. Germany possessed a muse and a deep faith. It gave them Goethe and Schiller who were lovers of liberty.

Until Germans decide within themselves to reconnect with their own roots, which they have slowly discarded since the mid 19th Century by embracing socialism as their new religion, a real change cannot occur with new momentum. It is not government, nor is it legal strategies, that can bring Germany out of her self-imposed paralysis. It’s a trust in her people and the individual responsibility that everyone carries that has the capacity to dislodge the mistaken belief that people need the power of the state for their livelihood.

Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.

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