Nuremberg — or Nürnberg, as the Germans call it — has a long and interesting history. It was a capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the place where German kings once held their inaugural sessions, a centre of the German Renaissance. But for most people, the word Nuremberg means one thing: the war trials in which the leaders of the Nazi party were brought to justice after World War II.
And the tour on the last day of my Viking European river cruise didn’t avoid the issue. In fact, it took us right into the heartland of Nazism: Zeppelin Field, named after the German count who flew the first airships but converted by the Nazis into a showcase for their empire.
Today, the field looks almost like a Roman or Greek ruin: the blockhouse from which Hitler addressed his followers stands deserted; grass grows among the rows of concrete seats where the party faithful once sat; the square white blocks that once supported a giant row of searchlights look like decaying hulks. And where armies once marched, there is a lonely stretch of asphalt used now and then for car rallies or the occasional rock concert.
These days, Zeppelin Field is a place for tour groups and curiosity seekers. But in the 1930s, it was the place where Hitler grew and nurtured his ill-fated revolution. Huge rallies brought hundreds of thousands of people to the site, many of them sleeping in free campgrounds to attend the big events. Mussolini visited, bands played, and soldiers shouted “Sieg heil!”.
Our tour guide outlined the now-familiar story: how Adolf Hitler and his accomplices gathered support with social programs and their own brand of inflamed patriotism, while arming the country under the pretext that it was under threat from surrounding countries. Then, one day, the plan came to fruition, and the world was at war.
Zeppelin Field was just part of the Nazi stronghold Hitler built in Nuremberg (for a closer look, click on the photo). Nearby stands one of the few remaining structures: the Congress Hall, a huge, semi-circular building designed for gatherings of the Nazi empire. It was never finished, and today the central rotunda has the feeling of an abandoned factory (that’s the photo at the top of this post).
One part of the complex does still operate, however: the documentation centre, built by the Germans after the war to collect and preserve the records of what happened, so it can never be forgotten. The ominous-looking awning and steel arrow that guard its entrance give some hint of the evil that lies within.
To complete the story of the Third Reich, we drove by the Palace of Justice, where 23 Nazi leaders stood trial in the months after the war. Surprisingly — at least to me — it actually looks like a palace, though the huge, ornate building had been a courthouse since 1916.
Behind it stands a series of drab-looking buildings, the prison in which the war criminals were held until their execution. The actual structure where they were imprisoned has been torn down and replaced with a newer version, but the complex is still used as a jail.
Our lesson in Nuremberg’s dark history done, we reached the old centre of the city, with its massive city wall still partly intact. Much of the ancient city centre is still standing, as well, despite the Allied bombing, and to the casual visitor, it seems much like any other historic German city.
It was market day, and the large market square was filled with stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and house plants to local beer and bratwurst. And just to confirm which side won the war, the strip of shops lining the square included that flag-bearer of American culture, McDonald’s.
Of course, it was all happening under the towering presence of the city’s cathedral, the Church of Our Lady, or Frauenkirche. Other churches and stately buildings filled the nearby streets, as well as shops and places to have a schnitzel and a stein of beer.
Touring Europe is always a history lesson. But while its history reaches back into the millennia, it also includes events that still strike an emotional chord in those old enough to remember World War II and its aftermath. That included many of us on this Viking cruise.
This chapter was one of the darkest in Europe’s history, and one we might like to forget. But seeing it for myself, walking the ground where it happened, helped me understand it a little more deeply. I might not have picked Nuremberg as a destination if I’d planned the itinerary myself, but I’m glad I went.
There was one stop left on my Viking river cruise, and one I was keen to see: a visit to Prague, the lovely, historic capital of the Czech Republic. And I had booked a couple of extra days to get a good look — and a taste of the good Czech pilsner.
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip. However, the views expressed are my own.
Photos taken with the Nikon D5500 SLR and the Fuji XQ2 compact.