Construction and re-construction

untitled (2)‘This small town [Rothenburg] is probably your only chance to see a nearly intact medieval walled city in Bayern that doesn’t contain a single modern building. That’s right—not a single building in the entire town was built after the Middle Ages. However, in WWII, Rothenburg was devastated when 40% of the town was reduced to rubble by bombs.’[1]

Sometimes it takes contact with another discipline to make you see historical themes in perspective. Such a contact recently, via Twitter, was Joshua Hagen’s article on the issues which arose from the decision to reconstruct Rothenburg.[2] I recommend the article, not least because it demonstrates that what we now see as a fait accompli was the product of many difficult decisions as to what should be restored and how. This reminded me of the decisions that have to be made when working on a piece of academic prose, which, once published, seldom betrays the existence of so many ‘roads not taken’. I wanted to pursue the analogy.

Rothenburg is only one of the German cities that were rebuilt after World War Two. I stood with my husband looking down on ‘medieval’ Nuremburg recently while he recalled his last visit in 1946 when ‘there was nothing there’. The children’s adventure playground just outside Frankfurt was always, for my German landlady, the Truemmerhaufen, the place where they dumped the rubble from the bombed out city in order to begin rebuilding. But for most of us, what we now see is ‘real’. The generation that remembers seeing the new emerging from the rubble in Germany is disappearing before our eyes. Anyone born after 1950 takes the restored buildings on trust, oblivious of the decisions taken or the unconscious assumptions made. Does this matter?

I think it does. There is a sense in which reconstructing a German town, or, indeed, a Middle Eastern historical site, is like writing history. No book, no building can ever restore the past as it was and the book or the building will always say as much about the society that existed when it was created as it does about the period it is recalling. For starters, there will always be a purpose in writing or rebuilding and there will always be some kind of deadline. Hagen makes it clear that Rothenburg was restored not because of its size or economic importance but because of what we would now call heritage. It was rebuilt, says Hagen, not to function in the post war world but to show that Germany’s cultural heritage could survive, that there was something left to be proud of, in a very dark time. It was also urgent – decisions had to be made which were always going to be disputed but it mattered more that they should be made, than that they should be perfect. And now, 70 years on, with new generations gazing reverently at the half-timbered buildings, it is, like a 1945 article, itself history, a product of its time, telling us more, possibly, about 1945 than it does about the fifteenth century. It is not true, but it is realistic.

So I do feel that written history and reconstruction are not that far apart. But bridging the gap between a scholarly article and something a non-academic can see, feel and touch is a tough call. I am starting a PhD this term and it will not involve a design for a reconstructed Carolingian scriptorium where children can wield quills and write on parchment in candle light whilst chanting psalms in Latin. But I would like to think that whilst the end product will (ahem!) be scholarly, the research I do will be something that can make the ninth century seem real to my contemporaries.

Watch this space.

[1] Let’s Go Germany, 1999, quoted in Hagen’s article

[2] ‘Rebuilding the Middle Ages: the cultural politics of reconstruction in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany’ in Journal of Historical Geography, Vol.31, (2005) Accessed via medievalists.net

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