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Hamburg and Its Destruction in World War II

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg’s strategic importance as a major port made it an Allied target in World War II. We learn about its history, destruction, and resurgence. Today this green, bustling port has become one of Germany’s most desirable places to live.

Complete Video Script

Hamburg is Germany’s second-largest city. Like other “second cities” — Chicago, Glasgow, St. Petersburg — it has a spirited pride. While yet to be discovered by American travelers, it’s a popular destination with Germans for its music, theater, and riverside energy.

A century ago, Hamburg's port was the third-largest in the world, with strong connections both east and west. Heavy damage in World War II devastated the commercial center.

During the Cold War, which followed, trade to the east was cut off. Port traffic dwindled, and so did the city's influence. But Hamburg’s been enthusiastically rebuilt, and, since the reunification of Germany just a generation ago, it’s gaining back its former status as a leading trade center. And it’s become one of Germany’s most desirable places to live.

The city’s delightful lakes were created in the Middle Ages, when townsfolk built a mill that dammed the local river. Back in the 1950s, a law guaranteed public access to the lake for everyone, and today, peaceful paths and bike lanes are a hit with locals. On a nice day, the lake is dotted with sailboats. On the far side, lush inlets reach into fancy residential neighborhoods. Along with plenty of downtown parkland, the lakes provide Hamburg — one of Germany’s greenest cities — with an elegant promenade that comes complete with top-of-the-line shops.

Just a block away, its massive city hall, built in the 19th century, overlooks the lively scene. It’s flanked by graceful arcades and surrounded by plenty of commerce. Its bold architecture and maritime atmosphere gives this northern-most Germany city an almost Scandinavian feel. With its trading heritage and a strong economy, Hamburg’s downtown showcases a wealthy city that rose like a phoenix from a terrible recent past.

You’d hardly know that this was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Germany in World War II. With its strategic port, munitions factories, and transportation links, Hamburg was a prime target for Allied bombers. American and British commanders had an innovative plan with a horrific goal. Its name? Operation Gomorrah.

On July 27, 1943, they hit targets first with explosive bombs to open roofs, break water mains, and tear up streets. The purpose? To make it hard for firefighters to respond. Then came a hellish onslaught of incendiary bombs. 700 bombers concentrated their attack on a relatively small area. The result was a firestorm never seen before. The intensity of the bombs actually created a tornado of raging flames reaching horrific temperatures.

Thousands suffocated inside their air-raid shelters and those outside were sucked off their feet, disappearing up into the fiery vortex. In three hours, the inferno killed over 35,000 people, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and reduced eight square miles of Hamburg to rubble and ashes.

Somehow the towering spire of St. Nicholas Church survived the bombing. It and the ruins of the church itself are now a memorial, left to commemorate those lost and to remind future generations of the horrors of war.

Where the original altar once stood is now a simple yet poignant concrete altar by Oskar Kokoschka.

The memorial’s underground museum quietly tells the story. You’ll see scorched and melted fragments demonstrating the heat of the firestorm and examples of the futility of trying to survive such a bombing. The museum also shows foreign cities that Germany destroyed. That’s because Germans make a point to acknowledge the suffering they inflicted on others when remembering their own suffering.

Though Hamburg is mostly rebuilt, many WWII-era bunkers were just too solid to destroy. So they survive, incorporated into today’s contemporary scene. This mammoth structure has 10-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls. With windows cut through the concrete, it’s surprisingly inviting. While once hosting gunners trying to shoot down Allied planes, today bomb-hardened staircases lead to music shops and dance clubs. And drummers here will never draw complaints from their neighbors.

Nearby, another bunker — this one with colorful graffiti — is now a climbing wall in a pleasant neighborhood park. While Germany is known for its order and efficiency, that social conformity comes with a flip side — neighborhoods well-known for their energetic counter culture.