The July 1943 Hamburg firestorm, which incinerated much of the city, is one of the most well-known events of the entire war. However, Hamburg was bombed repeatedly both before and after the concentrated sequence of air raids that caused the 1943 firestorm. It is miraculous that any portion of the city survived the widespread bombings that occurred, with dismaying regularity, between November 1940 and April 1945.
The wartime path of destruction through Hamburg was unpredictable. The 1943 firestorms—and there was more than one—occurred mainly in working-class residential districts located between two and five miles from the city center. The city center itself did not experience a firestorm in 1943, although the city center suffered numerous bombing episodes and witnessed its own series of deadly fires throughout the war.
A few areas of Hamburg emerged more or less intact at war’s end.
The Hamburg port, for instance, a chief target of Allied bombers, emerged from the numerous bombing raids relatively unscathed, largely because the port area was so heavily-defended. As a consequence, buildings near The River Elbe tended to escape destruction. In Hamburg, the general rule is that the closer a building’s location to The River Elbe, the greater the likelihood that the building survived the war.
Buildings lining The Alster Lakes also tended to survive the war, no doubt because bombers did not directly target the two sizable lakes around which the city of Hamburg had been erected (although a few lakeside buildings suffered direct hits and were totally destroyed). This accounts for the fact that Hamburg’s great City Hall, the Rathaus, one of the city’s largest and most prominent buildings, located in the very heart of the city, emerged from the war without a scratch (although it had been a specific target of the Allies on numerous occasions).
Buildings near the city-center Flak Tower also survived the war. This was so because Allied bombers deliberately stayed as far away from Flak Towers as possible, since anti-aircraft weapons sitting atop Flak Towers were the deadliest and most effective weapons against enemy bombers. This accounts for the fact that Hamburg’s great concert hall, the Laeiszhalle, was untouched by the war.
Other than buildings in the three noted areas, however, Hamburg saw few buildings make it through the war. Over ninety per cent of the city had to be rebuilt at war’s end. Rebuilding was not completed until the early 1980’s, almost forty years after cessation of hostilities.
Miraculously, throughout the city there are isolated pockets of buildings that somehow made it through the war and are preserved in their pre-war states.
The paths of destruction were random, based upon many factors. Sometimes isolated pockets of buildings survived because shifting winds suddenly changed the directions of raging fires. Sometimes Hamburg fire crews were successful in saving historic structures situated amidst areas otherwise completely decimated by bombs and fires. In a few cases, the proximity of a nearby park or square was all that was necessary to preserve an isolated group of buildings—some, but not all, fires were strong enough to leapfrog green spaces.
Prior to the war, Hamburg was a city packed with structures from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. After the war, Hamburg possessed only four very small groups of buildings from these historic periods that somehow survived the war.
One such area was Deichstrasse and The Cremon, two ancient streets that parallel and occupy opposite banks of The Nikolaifleet, one of many canals that passes through Hamburg’s city center and connects The Alster Lakes with The River Elbe.
Deichstrasse, an historic street dating back to 1304, is one of Hamburg’s most popular attractions. It is the oldest street in Hamburg and was home to the original Hamburg Harbor. The street has maintained its quaint character over many centuries. It remains the oldest residential area of Hamburg.
The name “Deichstrasse” derives from the Low German “dikestrate” (dike street), a reminder of the many dikes that, from the year 1200 onward, were erected in the immediate area in order to prevent flooding.
Warehouses—half-timbered townhouses, actually—were built on The Nikolaifleet, with their waterfronts bordering the canal and their street fronts bordering Deichstrasse. As a result, small transport vessels maintained easy access to the warehouses. These craft, with the assistance of slewing cranes permanently affixed to the houses, could unload goods directly into the ground floors of the houses. In some houses in Deichstrasse, such cranes may still be seen today.
The houses of Deichstrasse possessed large, dual ground-level doors at opposite ends of the houses, opening onto the river at one end and onto the street at the other. These ground floors served as storage areas and as sales rooms. The inhabitants’s living quarters were located on the floors above (some houses in Deichstrasse had as many as seven floors).
The oldest houses built on Deichstrasse are from the 14th Century. Several are from the 15th Century. Almost all houses face both the canal and the street. These merchant houses were all built on the premise of simplifying the transport of goods into the city.
By the 17th Century, Deichstrasse had become a major trading center, with merchants living, working and storing their goods in their houses on a widespread scale. Some of the houses on Deichstrasse are from as late as the 17th to the 19th Centuries.
All these Deichstrasse houses are excellent examples of the varying styles of old Hamburg architecture through the centuries.
The Great Fire Of 1842 destroyed about half of Deichstrasse’s original buildings, meaning that half of the houses standing today on Deichstrasse are replicas of the originals, recreated in the mid-19th Century. It was in Deichstrasse that the devastating Great Fire Of 1842 broke out, and it was from Deichstrasse that the fire moved toward the center of the city. The result is that today’s Deichstrasse buildings may be divided into halves: the half nearest The River Elbe are original houses, and the half nearest The Alster Lakes are 19th-Century replicas of original houses.
The houses of Deichstrasse survived Hamburg’s citywide restructuring campaigns of 1900 and 1936. Miraculously, the houses of Deichstrasse also escaped the bombardments of World War II. Had a single building suffered a direct hit, the entire street would have gone up like a match.
There are a host of narrow passageways between the houses, linking Deichstrasse directly to The Nikolaifleet.
Today the houses of Deichstrasse host restaurants and fashionable shops on their ground floors. The upper floors continue to serve as residential housing for hundreds of Hamburg residents.
The photo below shows the canal side of the houses on Deichstrasse.
The Nikolaifleet, at the rear of Deichstrasse, today runs dry at low tide, largely because the water is no longer regulated with a complicated series of dams (Hamburg’s system of canals is no longer used to transport goods; a few of the city’s canals today are dry even at high tide). The Nikolaifleet was the last of the historic canals to be built in Hamburg’s inner city, constructed to provide yet one more avenue of transportation for moving goods between The River Elbe and the center of Hamburg. The canal continued to enjoy heavy use until the end of World War I, when it lapsed into disuse (it had become outmoded by the motor truck).
The photograph below, from 1900, shows The Nikolaifleet brimming with small watercraft, all of which were being used to transport goods up and down the canal. The buildings lining the canal in this photograph are on The Cremon side of The Nikolaifleet.
On the opposite bank of The Nikolaifleet, parallel to Deichstrasse, is The Cremon. This ancient merchant road, which runs along a dike head, dates from 1252. This picturesque residential area is quite characteristic of Hamburg, and lies between two canals, The Nikolaifleet and The Katharinenfleet. (Medieval Saint-Katharinen-Kirche, which I wrote about on July 16, 2008, is nearby.) For all practical purposes, The Cremon is an island, bordered on three sides by water.
All buildings on The Cremon were built after 1646, the year in which the original development on The Cremon was completely destroyed in one of many fires that have ravaged the city of Hamburg over the centuries. As a result, many of The Cremon’s buildings are from the Baroque period. They are among the finest examples of Northern European Baroque architecture anywhere.
The Krameramtsstuben are another group of ancient Hamburg buildings. The Krameramtsstuben are located directly behind the rear of Saint-Michaelis-Kirche, which Andrew wrote about on October 3, 2008.
The Krameramtsstuben buildings, along with the Backerbreitergang, are the only lower-class residences in Hamburg associated with the Gangeviertel (Alley Quarter) that were not obliterated at some time or other over the last two centuries, either by The Great Fire Of 1842 or the two great Hamburg urban renovation campaigns of 1900 and 1936 or the bombardments of World War II.
The Krameramtsstuben consist of two rows of terrace houses facing each other across a narrow lane. Each terrace consists of five two-story, half-timbered houses that served as flats for widows of small traders. The twisted chimneys and signs on the houses, in the shape of scales, are original architectural details of the buildings.
Directly translated, Krameramtsstuben means “Shopkeeper Office Flats”. In The Middle Ages, Hamburg’s shopkeepers were organized into a guild, one of the purposes of which was to provide aid to its members and their families in case of need and old age. To provide its poor with humble but safe shelter, the guild built the Krameramtsstuben in 1676.
After disbandment of Hamburg’s guilds in 1863, ownership of the Krameramtsstuben transferred to Hamburg’s social welfare institutions. The flats continued to be rented to the elderly until 1969.
Today the Krameramtsstuben are no longer living quarters, but a picturesque courtyard housing a museum, several souvenir shops, an art gallery, an antiquarian bookseller, tea shops, and restaurants serving traditional Hamburg fare.
The Backerbreitergang is a long, narrow alley, the other remnant of the Gangeviertel of ancient Hamburg. Like Krameramtsstuben, this street survived fires, two waves of urban modernization and a world war.
The Backerbreitergang housed the truly poor of ancient Hamburg. The houses are very narrow, and only a few yards deep. The doorways are very narrow and the windows very small. The parents of Johannes Brahms were once forced to reside in the Backerbrietergang during a particularly low period in the family’s fortunes.
Families still reside in the Backerbreitergang. We saw families enter and come out of these tiny homes while we walked through this area of Hamburg. The entrance doorways are so narrow that we observed a woman dismantle a small baby stroller in order to get it through a front door.
The Backerbreitergang is only one block from Hamburg’s primary concert hall, the Laeiszhalle, on the other side of which is a giant urban park.
Miraculously, the Backerbreitergang was completely unharmed during the war.
The street makes it possible for visitors to imagine the atmosphere and poverty of Hamburg’s lower-class quarters in previous centuries.
Peterstrasse is the fourth area of ancient Hamburg that survived the war—or, more accurately, an area that offers a taste of how Hamburg looked before the war.
Peterstrasse was bombed during World War II and renovated after the war. The fine brick and half-timbered houses that line the street today are relatively new and make use of ancient building materials and methods. However, pre-war Peterstrasse never actually existed in the form to be seen today. The current Peterstrasse is an improvement over the buildings that used to occupy this ground, since the post-war reconstructions were distinctly bourgeois, while the original pre-war buildings were distinctly lower-class.A few of the buildings on Peterstrasse, however, are accurate reconstructions of historic Peterstrasse buildings. The most prominent example of a building reconstructed after the war so as to replicate exactly its pre-war predecessor is The Beyling Stift, an ancient building that provided low-cost housing for the elderly. The Beyling Stift of today looks no different from The Beyling Stift of centuries ago, and still serves its original function.
Johannes Brahms was born on Peterstrasse, and his family lived on Peterstrasse for many years. Hamburg’s Brahms Museum is located on Peterstrasse.
The reconstruction of Peterstrasse was completed only in 1982. It was the final post-war reconstruction project in the city of Hamburg, the last in a series of projects that required the work of two successive generations and was to consume thirty-seven years. Can there be a more telling measure of the city’s wartime destruction?
The 1943 Hamburg firestorm was one of the turning points in the war.
Over 1,250,000 Hamburg residents began flooding into surrounding countryside the morning after the firestorm, not to return to their city until the war was over. The procession of exiting Hamburgers into nearby provinces lasted for ten days. Displaced Hamburgers virtually repopulated an area extending one hundred miles in all directions. On their journey, they informed shocked locals of the depth of the city’s destruction.
Within days, everyone in Northern Germany knew of Hamburg’s destruction—and also understood that, if the great city of Hamburg could be destroyed literally overnight, then indeed the war had been lost.
Reich Radio never broadcast to the German populace the full story of the city’s destruction.
Hitler, despite Goebbels’s many pleadings, never visited the city in an attempt to bolster morale among the workers who remained behind.
Indeed, Hitler never visited a bombed German city for the duration of the war.