April 26, 2013 6:12 pm

Art from the ashes

War-ravaged Darmstadt has overcome its mid-century trauma and is once again a place of surprising beauty (in parts) and, above all, of peace

Darmstadt, the former capital of the Grand Duchy of Hesse, was bombed to smithereens on the night of September 11-12 1944. The mission by 226 Lancaster and 14 Mosquito bombers from No 5 Group RAF turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the much more notorious bombing of Dresden on February 13-14 1945 – the raid which inspired (if that is the word) Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and became synonymous with tragic human and cultural destruction.

In the context of the endgame of the second world war, the bombing of Darmstadt was a sideshow. As a university city and cultural centre, it was not targeted because of any strategic or industrial importance (apart from the Merck chemical-pharmaceutical factory). In the rather chilling words of the RAF’s Bomber Command 60th Anniversary Diary for 1944, “Darmstadt was simply one of Germany’s medium-sized cities of lesser importance which succumbed to Bomber Command’s improving area-attack techniques in the last months of the war when many of the larger cities were no longer worth bombing.”

It is worth putting a little flesh, even if charred, on those bones. Estimates for the number of civilians killed in the raid range from 10,550 to 12,300, with 49,000-66,000, out of a population of 110,000, made homeless. Getting on for a third as many civilians were killed in that single bombing-raid as perished in the entire London blitz from 1940-45; 20 times as many people died as during the infamous Luftwaffe raid on Coventry in November 1940.

As for the cultural destruction, the bombers deliberately targeted the ancient buildings of the historic centre, starting a fire that reduced one of the most beautiful small city-states in Europe to charred rubble.

The bombing of Darmstadt, though controversial even at the time, was soon overshadowed by the far greater inferno of Dresden. And because Darmstadt was “simply” one of Germany’s “medium-sized cities of lesser importance”, rebuilding was mainly done quickly and on the cheap, under the imperative of rehousing the homeless.

The result is that Darmstadt today can seem, as someone accompanying me on a trip there last month put it, “an utterly depressing place”. The city was rebuilt but somehow the devastation remained. Unlike Dresden, now restored to something approaching its former glory, or even Coventry, where a new cathedral was built alongside the ruins of the old to symbolise rebirth, in Darmstadt the emphasis was on a purely pragmatic and utilitarian reconstruction.

Something cultural did rise from the ashes of Darmstadt. Perhaps the sense of latent (or not so latent) destruction helped inspire the stark, you could almost say dehumanised, serial music that emerged from the 1950s Darmstadt School – that is from the composers, including Nono, Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio, who attended the International Summer Courses held in Darmstadt from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. This was music purged of all sentiment, burnt clean by the unspeakable flames into hard abstraction.

But Darmstadt has another legacy, which at least partially survived the apocalypse of 1944 and which opens a window into what now seems a more hopeful time. In 1899 the enlightened Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig set up an artists’ colony on the Mathildenhöhe heights about 1km from the town centre. Here a bunch of architects, sculptors and visual and applied artists belonging to the kindred movements called Jugendstil in Germany, Secession in Austria-Hungary and art nouveau elsewhere, gathered to instigate an experiment in the integration of art and life, inspired by the British arts and crafts movement and parallel experiments in places such as Antwerp, Nancy and Vienna. The Artists’ Colony (KünstlerKolonie) organised four exhibitions, in 1901, 1904, 1908, and, just on the eve of the first world war, in summer 1914.

Its leader was the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, co-founder of the Vienna Secession and architect of the magnificent Secession building. Olbrich died aged 40 of leukaemia in 1908, but some of his finest work is to be found in Darmstadt. Still rising high over the Mathildenhöhe is his Hochzeitsturm, the five-fingered tower presented as a wedding gift by the town of Darmstadt to its Maecenas. The Hans Dieters house is perhaps the most striking of the surviving Jugendstil villas. But the Olbrich work that I liked most, and which shows his extraordinary versatility, is much more modest: an exquisitely elegant chair in the charming KünstlerKolonie museum.

Wandering around the Mathildenhöhe on an early spring day, I was struck by a relative tranquility and emptiness that it would be hard to find in a comparable cultural site anywhere else in Europe. Walking back into the centre of town I found more fine buildings that had somehow survived the bombing, or were being restored.

Darmstadt has overcome its mid-century trauma. It is once again a place of surprising beauty (in parts) and, above all, of peace.


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