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Nuremberg: The Changing Meanings of a City

Continuing our blog series on Nuremberg, our Travelling Historians, Hannah and Chelsea, are exploring what the city means in terms of its history and legacy.

CS: So Nuremberg, a city we have both visited –  but what does it mean to you?

HR: It’s an odd one, Nuremberg is one of my favourite cities in the world with its beautiful medieval castle, stunning churches, and wood-covered bridges over the river flowing through the Centre. The walled town with its Handwerkmarkt and museums, as well as the best burger I have had in my life, it holds a really special place in my heart. But as spectacular as Nuremberg is, its dark past is hard to forget. The name Nuremberg is synonymous with the Holocaust: one of the darkest moments in world history.

Frauenkirche in the centre of Nuremberg – built in the 1300s it was built on the site of a former destroyed synagogue during a pogrom in 1349.

CS: This is true. First, we had Rallies, then the Race Laws which started the systematic (and legal!) persecution of Jewish people, and others.

HR: Absolutely, the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg began in 1927, before Hitler had even come to power, and then annually from 1933, drawing crowds in the millions. And even though Munich is often considered the home of Nazism and its ideology, Hitler himself chose Nuremberg as the spiritual home of his new Third Reich. Nuremberg had previously been the centre of the Imperial Empire and to Hitler it represented the Germany that he was creating. The Great Street (Grosse Strasse) of the Nuremberg Rally Grounds was even designed to line up with Nuremberg Castle to signify a direct and symbolic link to the great medieval Germany and the new Germany the Nazis were creating.

Grosse Strasse, looking in the direction of Nuremberg Castle

CS: So typical of the Nazis to use Nuremberg’s past and the present in this way as propaganda – even the buildings!

HR: And it wasn’t only the Rallies that Nuremberg is famous for. In 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were announced in the city, giving them their name. The laws identified who was considered Jewish, and was later extended to other groups such as Roma and Sinti. The laws were a crucial turning point in Nazi persecution. Anyone with just one grandparent who was Jewish was now classified as Jewish; some Germans weren’t even aware of their family history, but were now being persecuted for it. The Nuremberg Laws laid the foundation stones of the escalating persecution that would later become genocide. Therefore, Nuremberg – its name, the place, its buildings and history are synonymous with the Holocaust. And how do the Nuremberg Trials fit into the history of the city?

The benches that the defendants sat on during the Nuremberg Trial in 1945-1946

CS: Nuremberg’s history took another dramatic turn in 1945 when the four Allies (USA, Britain, France and Soviet Russia) decided to hold the first international war crimes trials in the city. While this has obvious symbolism and contrast to Nuremberg’s role in the Third Reich, it served a practical function. Whereas Munich or Berlin would have been obvious choices, they were flattened by aerial bombardment and had little infrastructure or capacity in late 1945.  However, Nuremberg’s court houses and a nearby jailhouse had been relatively undamaged and, importantly, Nuremberg sat in the American zone of occupation. This obviously was advantageous to the ‘western Allies’ navigating those tricky post-war political tensions.

HR: So Nuremberg wasn’t chosen because of its symbolic value?

CS: No, which is very surprising, given how symbolic it actually was. But that doesn’t mean that Nuremberg didn’t rise to the occasion. The trials’ major goal was to outlaw aggressive warfare. While nearly all of the 22 indicted Nazis on trial claimed “I was just following orders”, the International Military Tribunal refused that argument (although, it could be used to an extent to mitigate punishment). The fact that obedience could not be used to escape the hangman’s noose set a major precedent, and brought humanity and ethics into direct contention with aggressive warfare. Nuremberg’s legacy in this sense is profound. It helped to define an international concept of human rights, it criminalised genocide, it introduced laws for medical research on human beings, it created a permanent international court for war crimes, and it created an irrefutable historical record of what constitutes war crimes, so that none could claim this hadn’t been done before. Those are all major accomplishments with incalculable international impact.

HR: And it probably helped to deter future wars.

CS: That was certainly the hope. Although, as we know, it didn’t prevent Srebrenica or the Rwandan genocide, amongst others.

HR: Sadly not. And how do you think Nuremberg is dealing with its past today?

Memorial for a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 in Nuremberg

CS: My impression of Nuremberg when I visited was that, similar to the rest of Germany’s great cities, it is actively confronting its conflicted past. The streets glitter with Stolpersteine (many more than even I expected) and its memorials to the Jews and persecuted peoples are poignant symbols of its role in the Holocaust. The anniversaries remembering Nuremberg’s major events are also inescapable reminders of its contributions to the Third Reich; in 2020, there was even more attention as it was the 75th anniversary of the start of the Trials.

After decades of debate, the city of Nuremberg has recently decided to conserve the infamous Nazi rally grounds by 2025. The hefty 85-million-euro price-tag will be shared with the state of Bavaria, while the federal government will oversee future maintenance of the site.  Signs will explain the history and significance of each building, while those portions reclaimed by skateboarders and youths will be fixed and maintained. The nearby Documentation Centre, which welcomes 300,000 visitors each year, will be expanded. Undoubtedly, these actions will add another layer of meaning to Nuremberg’s complex legacies, whereby the city itself, the very fabric of its stones, will serve as both a memorial and a warning about the dangers of totalitarianism.

Dr Chelsea Sambells and Hannah Randall


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