From the Mirror of the Infinite to the Broken Looking Glass: Unveiling Beauty in German Glass Installations after the Holocaust

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[Germany’s h]istoric churches were lovingly restored, as the Allied authorities (above all the United States and Great Britain) incorrectly regarded the churches as having been politically uncompromised in the Nazi regime. Germans saw the churches as important symbols of Christianity and of Occidental culture. But the Christian churches were also important symbols of German national identity…. Where the churches were also constitutive of local identities, as in Catholic Cologne, there were added incentives to rebuild them as quickly and as completely as possible… Rarely did West Germany allow ruined churches to stand alone as reminders of German victimization (or sin?) amid the modernized hustle of rebuilt urban centers.

—Rudy Koshar
Professor of German and European Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison1

Germany’s lengthy postwar reconstruction ostensibly provided the unique set of conditions that fostered a significant conceptual departure in the design of large-scale glass installations generically, but inaccurately, known as “stained glass.” After 1945, thousands of churches and civic sites shattered or gutted by Allied bomb raids required provisional and eventually permanent restorations, including glass replacements. Similarly fragmented, the nation’s ideations of its own identity were radically, irredeemably ruptured, and demanded aesthetic responses across all artistic disciplines that diplomatically confronted its citizens’ witting or unwitting complicity in the Holocaust.

Contentious discussion about the most accurate portrayal of Germany’s identity and rootedness, interminably debated by historians and cultural critics for centuries prior to the war, skipped the tracks in response to the consequences of Hitler’s Final Solution.2 Harried considerations of an overarching moral imperative supplanted the traditional discourse, which in the past had ricocheted between the poles of German’s perceived historicity and regional distinctions versus technological prowess and advancement as a truly modern entity.3 The entire basis for the identity discussion seemed nullified by the larger moral implications; those elusive loopholes in the fabric of Germany’s morality that allowed Hitler’s brutal purging scheme to affect such damage. Germany’s moral and national crisis of conscience after its capitulation to the Allies constitutes one of the preconditions—in fact, probably the most essential precondition—that set it apart from the rest of the world after the war.

The Allied Strategic Bomb campaign leveled huge tracts of urban fabric, compromising important historical complexes.4 At first, Allied bomb strategies logically focused on the highly productive, industrialized areas such as the Ruhr valley region, and manufacturing centers such as Dortmund, Paderborn, and Düsseldorf. The nation’s network of port cities on rivers at Cologne, Bremen, and Frankfurt received extraordinary damage, pockmarked by RAF and Army Air Force bombs that did not always reach their intended targets. Border cities, such as Essen, Kleve, and Emden in the west, or Prenzlau in the east and Hamburg in the north, sustained heavy losses.

Unfortunately, Allied campaigns targeted significant historical centers towards the end of the war, partly in retaliation for the great loss at Coventry—as any German native who survived the shellings will quickly explain—and partly as an intentioned strategy to demoralize the German people.5 Bomb raids leveled entire medieval portions of ancient and Hanseatic League trading towns such as Lübeck and Osnabrück in the north, or the gemstone of Germany’s crown at Aachen, or Frankfurt’s city center, which harbored many prominent sites related to the coronation of German royalty. By some estimates, no city under 50,000 inhabitants remained untouched. Major cities or strategic sites, such as Mainz (western Rhineland), Hannover (north), and Prenzlau (east) lost between 75 and 91 percent of their urban and suburban fabric to air raids. The vestiges of destruction immediately become evident in the great volume of dreary, bland postwar housing units visible today in so many urban centers.

If any positive outcome is possible in war, one arguable benefit of the intense Allied firebombing in historic districts involved the exposure of medieval frescoes and foundations beneath the layers of imperial aggrandizement, Reformation whitewashing, and inaccurate baroque or neo-Gothic style restorations in Germany’s most important churches from the nineteenth century. It seemed as if a gigantic and haphazard archaeological expedition had leveled the nation’s centers in a matter of months. Replacing roofing, vaults, built-in artwork (such as altarpieces or historical murals), and glass programs—particularly in church structures—became a priority for West Germany’s reconstitution after the war. The severity of the destruction motivated many preservationists to fight for the reconstruction or refurbishment of the medieval fabrics underneath the overzealous eighteenth and nineteenth-century restorations. In essence, these advocates for historical authenticity wanted to put the structures back “correctly,” and to reclaim integrally medieval fabrics from the heavy hand of historically inaccurate Reinigungen (i.e. “purification” campaigns of recent centuries).6

Many of Germany’s historical churches display official bronze plaques listing virtually parallel building histories. Briefly summarized, these begin with a single-aisled ninth or tenth century foundation, founded by mendicant or missionary orders or Charlemagne, enlarged to three-aisled footprints in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries after the ascendancy of Charlemagne’s dynasty. Abandonment and eventual neglect during the plague years in the fourteenth century, natural catastrophes, and various fires in the seventeenth century, occasioned in certain regions by the Thirty Years’ War, the War of Palatine Succession waged by Louis XIV, inevitably destroyed portions of the original fabric. Eighteenth or nineteenth century “modernizations” all too frequently refashioned the early- to late-medieval three-aisled structures, and signature German hall churches in Baroque or neo-Gothic cladding, to suit the stylistic preferences of the time, and, in fact, to visibly enhance relevant sites as imperially-connected foundations.7 Damage after The Great War led to a spate of archaeological investigations during the interwar period, but after the RAF and Allied raids of 1943 to 1945—always marked by a specific date on historical plaques—the church building is often described as “destroyed,” suggesting complete annihilation, when in fact it might have lost its roof, vaults, and interior artwork. Most church sites in cities over 50,000, however, lost their windows to percussions blasts, if not direct hits. In any case, these programs were often eighteenth- and nineteenth-century replacements from the “purification” phase of restoration. Very rarely, medieval windows remained intact; even more rarely, townspeople had time to remove historic glazing (which was occasionally, and incidentally, mislaid).